Nameless No More: Writing All Women into Library History

Bernadette A. Lear, Penn State Harrisburg Library

More than a century ago, women all over Pennsylvania wrung out rags with their reddened hands, arched their backs wearily, and resumed scrubbing library floors. When Helen Underwood Price of the Pennsylvania Free Library Commission conversed with one such “janitress,” the unidentified woman said she was “glad to have her girl have good books.” She was content to clean up the building because she “had nothing else” besides her labor to donate (see Price, “The Making of Pennsylvania Libraries,” ALA Bulletin 4 (1910): 715–21).

This winter, when I was using scrapbooks of the James V. Brown Library in Williamsport, I found a photograph of 2 female workers taken sometime during the mid-1930s to early 1940s. It shows an older woman proudly holding up a mounted copy of an old newspaper. A younger woman with slumped shoulders sits behind a typewriter, perhaps a bit less enthusiastically. I believe this is rare visual evidence of CWA, NYA, or WPA employees – non-librarians who were provided with federally-funded library jobs as a form of relief during the Great Depression. Hoping to learn the women’s names, I held my breath as I flipped over the photograph. There was nothing written on the other side. Given the deliberate posing and sharp quality of the original image, I would guess that it was published in a local newspaper. Perhaps the paper provided a detailed caption. However, since most Williamsport dailies from the 1930s are unindexed, I don’t have much hope of locating it.

nameless.jpgDo these two anecdotes seem disconnected, incomplete, and frustrating to you? Have you noticed that the protagonists are nameless?

That’s my point.

A great deal of progress has been made since the 1980s, when Laurel Grotzinger wrote about the lack of “herstory” in studies of library history (see “Biographical Research on Women Librarians: Its Paucity, Perils, and Pleasures,” pgs. 139-190 in The Status of Women in Librarianship: Historical, Sociological, and Economic Issues, ed. Kathleen M. Heim, New York: Neal-Schuman, 1983). There are now articles and books about pioneering government documents librarian Adelaide Hasse (1868–1953), library educator Mary Wright Plummer (1856–1916), children's librarian Effie Louise Power (1873–1969), and many other notable library women. Importantly, this effort is earning the recognition of male colleagues and the wider profession. My own work on Hannah Packard James, head librarian of the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre, has won state and national awards.

This said, the existing scholarship remains narrow in terms of which women are studied. At the intersections of gender, class, and what I would call “professional versus non-professional role,” a large number of women remain unnoticed. Library directors, department heads, or other “leading,” “pathbreaking” women receive attention, but library assistants, temporary employees, community advocates, and volunteers go unmentioned. Publications also tend to privilege public services and outreach efforts over other library activities. Articles about catalogers and other technical services employees are less common, and I don’t know of any biographical or historical studies of library building custodians, human resources directors, administrative assistants, IT gurus, or web mistresses.

Furthermore, historians have largely ignored women’s struggles for additional rewards and rights in the library workplace. Perhaps this is because white-collar professionals are uncomfortable utilizing or being subject to the discourse typically used when discussing women “laborers” on shop floors. Yet there is abundant evidence to support library labor history studies. In many cases, libraries joined the fight for salaries and benefits comparable to other municipal workers. For example, following state legislation and local ordinances in the 1910s-1940s which created public sector pension systems in Pennsylvania, the trustees and directors of Scranton and other Pennsylvania public libraries struggled to ensure that their own employees were included in cities’ retirement systems. Similar battles occurred when local governments offered health insurance plans, and when school districts raised teachers’ salaries, while excluding library employees from such benefits. There are also examples of conflicts regarding women’s rights in the library workplace. To give one example, Reading Public Library refused to hire married females until labor shortages during World War II forced its board to rescind such policies. Yet library history seldom includes these and other stories of library-workers-as-laborers.

I hope my own work will correct such gaps. I am currently on sabbatical, undertaking a statewide project on the history of Pennsylvania public libraries from the colonial era through the 1940s. By the end of the academic year, I will have used board minutes, annual reports, scrapbooks, correspondence, and other materials from more than 20 libraries, as well as the archives of the Pennsylvania Library Association and the State Library of Pennsylvania. In addition, I am using the papers of the state-level General Federation of Women’s Clubs, Grange, Young Men’s Christian Association, and other organizations that promoted libraries. I believe that my work is unusual, because I will argue that librarians were not always the primary agents in such movements. Particularly in founding libraries, obtaining tax levies, and garnering other community support, the actions of trustees, major donors, government officials, local women’s clubs, teachers, and other volunteers have been more important. Through a blog (“In Search of Pennsylvania Library History”), I am trying to tell their stories, while also making some of my work freely available to colleagues and the general public.

Expanding the bounds of our knowledge is not only the responsibility of scholars like me, however. Tomorrow’s historians will use the records that you and your institutions are creating today. There are many opportunities for you to help write female library workers and advocates into the historical record. The first step is to create those documents in the first place. Though it may seem tedious, you would make historians like me “happy-dance” if you compiled a yearly staff directory which lists every employee’s full name, department, and position/responsibilities. Similarly, all library reports, press releases, publications, blog posts, web pages, and correspondence should provide the first name, surname, job title, and role of each person mentioned, as well as the dates activities occurred, and when the documents were created. Include volunteers’ names and contributions, too, if feasible.

The existing body of records would also be greatly improved if we asked ourselves if we are truly including all of our colleagues, and if we strove to involve those who have not previously been granted voice. For example, do our libraries’ newsletters include “welcome” biographies of new trustees, library assistants, volunteers, and other workers, as well as new directors and librarians? Is everyone welcomed to write for our newsletters and other publications? When we advertise new initiatives, do we acknowledge each and every person who made important contributions? When we snap photographs and gather prints into albums, do we attempt to capture and identify everyone? Have we collected oral histories from long-serving employees and library friends, regardless of their positions in our organizations? If we must weed our libraries’ records, do we keep materials that document each departments’ activities, or just the ones occurring in board rooms and directors’ offices? What else are we doing – and what can we do -- to write all our libraries’ employees and advocates into library history?

The necessary corollaries to creating historical documents are organizing and preserving them. Here are some tips:
  1. Conduct an attic-to-basement, ceiling to floor, wall-to-wall search of your building for any materials pertaining to your library’s history. Open every folder within every closet and office file cabinet, regardless of how they are labeled. Scour computer disks, hard drives, and other electronic storage spaces for recent materials. Ask current and former employees if they have any library records in their homes. Invite the public to donate library artifacts and documents.
  2. Gather all historical materials in a climate-controlled, secure space. *Not* water-stained attics or musty basements; *not* the closet next to that old pipe you’re always worried about; and *not* an unprotected shelf in the reference room, where customers can stick flavorless, chewed gum in the pages of your documents!
  3. In most cases, sort the records according to their creators. Thereunder, arrange them chronologically. For example, gather your board of trustees meeting minutes into a folder or box and put them in order by date. Pull together the head librarians’ monthly reports and place them in a different file or carton. Photos and flyers from the children’s department’s summer reading programs should go together in another folder. This said, do not disassemble scrapbooks and other “packages” that appear to be purposefully kept together. Documents filed together may provide context for each other.
  4. If your library keeps its historic records in old copy paper cartons or fruit crates, it’s time to upgrade to acid-free folders and boxes. If you cannot afford both folders and boxes, invest more in the enclosures that will touch your records, rather than outer cartons (this assumes that you are shelving your materials in a secure, climate-controlled space).
  5. Consider donating copies of your board minutes, annual reports, and other materials to your county historical society, especially if you have duplicates that you would otherwise throw away. Also consider digitizing and creating an online exhibit of your most important documents. Having materials in multiple locations is more likely to ensure their survival in case your building is ever flooded or affected by another disaster.

I ask this of you because, someday, I intend to undertake a “Part II” project which will delve into library history from the 1950s to the present. I envision a future where all library women are represented by their full names, where photographs of them are thoroughly labelled, when library assistants and volunteers receive as much public acknowledgment as director and librarians … and when all library women are “nameless no more.”