Sex, Gender & Librarianship

This is likely just a brain-dump of a teaser post, as it’s a topic I’ve just gotten started on, which could really grow into multiple posts as I explore it further in the future.

I ran into Dean at my favourite local coffeeshop the other day and we got talking a bit about gender issues and librarianship. Given that I’m a gender studies teacher, and a librarian, it didn’t take much prodding on his part to get my head spinning in that direction. It’s actually more surprising that – while certainly I talk about gender isues, pay equity, library cultures, and the like a lot – I hadn’t sat down and seriously thought about the intersections in a methodical way before. And wow, once you start thinking there’s a lot of interesting stuff to explore in terms of sex, gender and LIS, isn’t there?

Here’s my brainstorm list of topics to play with, as of this morning. All of these thoughts are themes to explore with an eye to sex & gender, race & ethnicity, socio-economic class, and ideally also attributes such as age, dis/ability, sexuality, etc.

I’m super interested in poking my mind down these paths, so if you’re reading and thought on these bullet points, or other suggestions for related topics, I’d love to hear them:

  1. Pre-Dewey librarianship, and the historical Western masculinity of literacy
  2. Melvil Dewey& the feminization of library education & professions
  3. Modern (past 100 yrs) images & protrayals of librarians
  4. Studies of library cultures/subcultures (including “guybrarian” “gaybrarian,” the systems vs public services great divide, corporate librarianship vs non-profit, school teacher-librarians, IT in libraries, etc.)
  5. LIS research and gender/race/class assumptions and approaches
  6. Information behaviour & user groups
  7. Technology uptake & influence among user groups
  8. Social issues in design of info & communications systems
  9. Techie & g33k culture(s) and accompanying masculinities and semi-masculinities (this can probably be divided up into eras, like the library bullet points above, but I’m not yet knowledgable enough to brainstorm how – other than to say that:
  10. OSS and other “open” movements should probably be their own bullet point here

Dean suggested this topic area might make an interesting grad course, and I have to completely agree. With the right framing (including critical sex/gender 101 for LIS folks and LIS 101 for non-LIS folk), it could be cross-listed between LIS and gender studies at any given institution with both grad programs, as a “sex, gender and information issues” or “gendered aspects of information” or some such.

Why would this be important? Well, to me it’s clear that diversifying LIS work is essential. I don’t mean “attract more men to librarianship” because if that was the only goal, we could probably do it by raising salaries and changing language. I mean real change, that will make libraries representative of the populations we serve, and help information services or various types understand user needs as well as employee strengths and needs.

And in order to make change we have to understand what’s going on now and how we got here. Anyone who supervises other workers can really benefit from a critical analysis of race/class/gender issues in their profession. Anyone who is setting the agenda for the future of a profession must understand such issues, or their agendas will lead down the path of diminshing returns.

More on this topic after I’ve had time to explore further. Feedback is welcome.




Filed under gender, LIS education, The Profession

3 responses to “Sex, Gender & Librarianship

  1. Dean Giustini

    Hi Devon,
    Glad you blogged about our brief talk. What I find fascinating is viewing librarianship through a gendered lens; I believe a methodical examination of the issues would help shed light on the challenges both sexes face. Of course, male and female librarians face all kinds of challenges such as those you mention, what familial support there was for deciding on librarianship as a career, the perception that librarians are low paid clerks and not professionals, and also how power and how it is exercised (by both sexes) reveals additional information about evolution of the field.

    Perhaps we can start by building a bibliography on my wiki about this topic.


    • greyson

      Hi Dean,

      Yes, I figured you’d be okay with my tossing these thoughts out into the blogosphere. Beginning a collaborative bibliography is a good idea.

      Personal narratives by librarians and other info profesisonals are a very accessible entre into the topic of gender and information systems. And narratives such as those of male librarians within feminized professions (such as public librarians or academic public services librarians) certainly expose interesting wrinkles in traditional narratives of power and privilege.

      However, I would argue that libraries are just a corner of the interestingly gendered world of information systems here.

      Back in the mid/late 1990’s there was a flurry (okay, flurry is perhaps an overstatement, but more than a blip) of courses & articles relating to women and the Internet/IT/ICTs. Much of that content looks quaintly anachronistic to us just a decade later, if taken on a micro level. But stepping back from it and looking at what that body of work says about socio-demographics and information systems may be informative here. What was true of Internet users in 1994 – is it true of the OSS community today?

      Nowadays there is some related work by folk such as Danah Boyd and the Pew Internet & American Life researchers on demographics of social media and online info seeking, and there are user-centred design and marketing folks focused on any niche imaginable; but on the other hand there are so many IT movements and futurist predictions that are seemingly blind to socio-demographic issues. It’s quite the dichotomy.

      I’m glad you’re thinking down these lines. My mind is still spinning on it all as well. It’s nice to have colleagues that can spur one on to examine interesting new threads – something I appreciate about the LIS community.

  2. Moyra Lang

    Progressive Librarian Issue #32 (page 36-54)

    I wrote an article “Library Rhetoric: the Canadian Library Association Statement of Diversity and Inclusion & LGBTQ Advocacy” -about ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in library policies, practices, and rhetoric. These are topics that I spent hours thinking and writing on.

    Our society is deeply invested in 2 sexes – Dr. Gerald Calahan, an immunology biologist has written a book called “Between XX & XY: Intersexuality & the Myth of 2 sexes”. Calahan claims that the complexes that generate finger prints are similar to the processes that generate sex.

    Gender is a whole different subject. Sex and gender get conflated and are often used interchangability to mean the same thing.

    Susan Styker or Jamieson Green also write on these topics. I think these are important issues in terms of library policies and practices, as we try and include we can actually exclude people.

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