September 23, 2008
Geeks are Guys: Is the Re-Feminization of Law Librarianship Coming?
In The Feminization of Librarianship, Tawny Sverdlin calls attention to the well-known fact that library work has been associated with women since the late nineteenth century when the proliferation of American public libraries began and library education was professionalized to meet library needs for trained staff. She observes:
In the late nineteenth century without many jobs available to educated women, male library administrators often accepted the employment of women as librarians and assistants as a means of allowing their organizations to survive financially. Access to alternate types of employment proved to be an important factor in attracting women to the profession. Male librarians at the time were accepting of incoming women simply for the cost-effective opportunity that they provided.
The opportunity for women to enter library school at Columbia College, later known as Columbia University, in 1887 proved to be a double-edged sword in terms of women’s opportunity for advancement. Melvil Dewey (right) championed women as librarians and library school educators but placed caps on their achievement in terms of gender straight away. According to Dewey’s blatant double standard, women had to demonstrate truly remarkable ability or be relegated to perpetual underling status. [emphasis added]
Professionalization in Law Libraries. If we looked into law library staffing in the late nineteenth century and its eventual professionalization in leadership roles I think we know what we would find were we to examine the appointment of directors in academic and court law libraries where the growth of legal reporting coupled with Langdell's "law library is a laboratory" mantra first signaled the need for full-time, if not professional, librarians. First, someone who "knew where the books where" was appointed to run the library full-time. For example Henry DeForest Clarke became the first in a line of full-time librarians to serve the US Supreme Court in 1887 when the Court Clerk found his library chores a burden. A porter for the US Supreme Court, Clarke knew where to find the books in the joint Congressional and Court library and in the homes of the Justices. He served until his death in 1900.
A pool of readily available and convenient law school and court staffers serving full-time to run law libraries was followed by a candidate pool of male attorneys because female law school grads were few and far between. These male attorneys turned librarians rarely had professional library training but may have been supported by female clerks with some training. They, in turn, oftentimes were succeeded by a male law library director with law school and library school training, a rare commodity considering law school grads were usually male and library schools students were predominately female.
I think we would find that the glass ceiling in law library administration was finally cracked when deans and court administrators recognized that their professional prejudice (or arrogance) that a lawyer was needed to run a law library because only another law-trained person would understand lawyers, law profs and judges "unique" information needs was a mistake. The structure of legal literature and the glut produced by the legal publishing industry required a professional librarian's skills. If one checked closely, I think one would find that cracks began to open when male attorney-law librarians skilled in legal bibliography were replaced as head law librarians with female librarians professionally trained and experienced in all aspects of technical services.
Glass Ceiling in Law Library Administration. Cracked but not shattered even to this day. As the desired skill set for law library administrators turned from technical services to public services, the window of opportunity to smash the glass ceiling completely was narrowed. Sure female public services law librarians moved up the ranks to run law libraries. The career path of one of Clarke's successors, Judy Gaskell, the current Supreme Court Librarian is one of many examples. Judy Gaskell worked her way to her current position after serving first in public services at the University of Chicago's law school library and then as director of DePaul's law school library.
But if the promotion track to law library administration has shifted to the pool of practicing public services law librarians, there should be substantially more female law library administrators than there are. Why aren't there? Probably because female law librarians have had a tougher time proving their credentials as front-line public services librarians to those members in the law library's patron group who make the law library director hiring decisions. In my opinion, the hurdle has been, may still be, much higher. It was probably easier for deans and court administrations to appoint as library director a female librarian skilled in the so-called "back office" and "mechanical" skills of technical services. Ordering and cataloging books, organizing and maintaining a library collection, is relatively mindless work, right? (NB: this is not my opinion about tech services; the best reference and research law librarians are those who took every damn cataloging and classification course available in library school.)
Bias? Yes, even as late as the 1980s, I knew that I, as a law firm reference librarian then, had a much easier time working with attorneys than my equally or better qualified female law firm librarians. My female colleagues were still being asked to make photocopies, cite-check briefs, and were reporting being quizzed to the point of questioning their competency about their research results. Nothing like that every happened to me. My hunch is female public services librarians in law schools and courts had similar experiences. I'm not saying it was impossible for women to prove their street creds, just harder than men.
"Fixing" the Cracks in the Glass Ceiling. Have attitudes changed much since the 1980s? Maybe but watch out for the hiring trend of the next generation of law library administrators. Historically, the shifting professional skill set desired by those who appoint law library directors has moved from (1) technical services followed by (2) public services to (3) today's information technology and services, and we all know that "geeks are guys," right?
"Come on, Joe, people don't think like that anymore!" Wanna make a bet. [JH]
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Karen, but the JD ceiling is not illegal. Although in my 15 years in academic law librarianship I have met many very capable non-JD law librarians, I can certainly understand if a law school library wants reference librarians with JDs, they are law schools after all.
Posted by: x | Sep 24, 2008 9:07:22 AM
The glass ceiling has not bothered me as much as the JD ceiling. As a legal reference librarian for almost 18 years, getting a foot in the door of academia as a reference librarian has been an uphill battle.
Posted by: Karen R. | Sep 23, 2008 6:36:27 PM
I find this analysis of the glass ceiling facing female librarians interesting and thought provoking. However, I think the post overlooks a key part of the equation -- geographic mobility. I am newish to the profession, and something that seems apparent to me is that individuals in the profession have a better chance of moving-up to management ranks if they are prepared to relocate. I also think it remains more common for families to relocate for reasons related to the husband's career, with wives being less likely to pursue opportunities that would require the family to move. If these assumptions are accurate, then male librarians are more likely than female librarians to apply for out-of-town job postings.
Posted by: Jodi Kruger | Sep 23, 2008 1:36:10 PM
Is it tough for women? You bet, look at the way the media and the left are treating Governor Palin. Would they say the same things about a man? Probably not.
Posted by: x | Sep 23, 2008 9:21:10 AM