Sunday, June 22, 2014

Was the world our horizon?: coming to terms with feminism and library women's history

I haven't published any scholarly material since January 2013 and books require an awfully long time between thought and print. So I decided to invest a few weeks this summer in revising half-written and rejected papers. I was able to rework one manuscript very quickly. Derived from two chapters of my master's thesis about libraries at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, it only needed some additional citations and editing for length. But I am struggling with another piece, about the early career of Hannah Packard James (1835-1903).

James was one of the first professional public librarians in Pennsylvania and a founder of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Back in 2011, I wrote a very successful article about her later years at the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre. I placed James within the Progressive movement, showing how an older, conservative woman responded to the professionalization of her work, increasing urban poverty, and other changes brought on by industrialization. In particular, James' efforts with the Charity Organization Society (now the Family Services Association of the Wyoming Valley) and the Reading Room Association (defunct) show how she embraced the technocracy of the era, but did not ascribe to liberal economic policies that other reformers felt were core to Progressivism.

Hannah Packard James (1835-1903), head of the
Osterhout Free Library and a founder of the
Pennsylvania Library Association. Image from
Proceedings and Collections of the Wyoming
Historical and Geological Society for the Years
 1902-1903 (Wilkes-Barre, PA: the Society, 1904),
pgs. 300-304.
Now, though, I am attempting to describe James' youth and early career in Massachusetts, especially trying to uncover her reasons for entering library work. The task is challenging because I have found no family correspondence or diaries to shed light on her experiences during the 1830s-1870s. By piecing together U.S. and Massachusetts census information, church records, local histories, and other documents, I have learned that economic necessity was likely a strong motivator for James seeking paid employment. Her father was a wooden shipbuilder, and that industry faltered in the 1840s. He died when Hannah was still a teenager. She moved to Newton, a suburb of Boston, to live with her sister. Welthia's husband was a machinist and inventor, and although he was steadily employed, the family had few assets. Assembling such facts is not difficult -- it's simply a matter of persistence. It only involves consulting guides to each and every collection in the relevant historical societies, and doggedly searching unlikely sources in hopes of finding the tiniest clues.

For me, the difficulty is shoe-horning James into existing interpretive frameworks about library history and women's history. It appears that if you write of females, you must always discuss gender, whether or not you're interested in it, and whether or not your sources say anything definitive. The editor who first received my manuscript could not accept my focus on household economics and my silence about the "statement" James may have been making about the role of women when she decided to enter the workforce. Furthermore, the editor demanded that I cite Dee Garrison's Apostles of Culture, a book that I believe is helpful for understanding generational differences among librarians (in fact, I used it in that way for my article about James and Progressivism), but is sometimes dead-wrong when discussing relationships between men and women in public libraries. Thus after I received a "revise and resubmit" notice, I was so frustrated that I cast Hannah Packard James aside. I preferred to move on, rather than wrestle with Garrison again!

As someone who grew up in the 1990s, it is tough-going for me to incorporate analyses written by feminists of the 1970s and 1980s into my work. Suzanne Hildenbrand may have observed this generational difference when she found that recent articles do not discuss equity issues as previous work has done. For me, earlier studies seem colored by a battle that has not been my own. Perhaps women writing 30-40 years ago felt especially compelled to explain how they struggled to enter various industries, how "pink-color" professions like librarianship became associated with low pay and status, and why many other inequities have continued to exist in the workplace. If you start from such questions, disputes between library men and women become very noticeable. There is also a tendency to speak of (all) women, rather than (each) woman -- in other words, to make broad generalizations across persons of various generations, family backgrounds, geographic areas, and other demographics. For example, in Apostles of Culture, Dee Garrison describes library women writ large as lacking “a professional sense of commitment to work, a drive to lead rather than to serve, and a clear-cut conception of professional rights and responsibilities." She viewed their mass entry into librarianship during the late nineteenth century as having created “a certain passivity” in the field that was only pushed aside when “gentry opinion was firmly behind them” or “library circulation was threatened" (pg. 50, 188). The same interpretive blinders can occur among scholars who refute Garrison's negative casting of women, and instead discuss the positive contributions females have made to the profession. As affirmed as I personally feel whenever I read Mary Niles Maack's "Gender, Culture, and the Transformation of American Librarianship", I am not sure that every librarian, either a century ago or today, has bought into the argument that our femininity in and of itself has transformed our workplace.

When I look to Hannah Packard James for answers, her statements don't fit Garrison's or Maack's models. In fact, James' words are not even internally consistent. For example, in 1897, she delivered a speech before an international audience about library training programs in the United States. She extoled women's executive capability, mentioning their "successful management of State libraries, college libraries, large city libraries, and hundreds of smaller ones." Further, she found that "the question of sex in library science seems not to be recognized, and, apart from occasional local prejudice or reason in favour of either man or woman, library positions are bestowed according to ability, and not according to sex." (see Transactions and Proceedings of the Second International Library Conference Held in London, Edinburgh: Morrison and Gibb Limited, 1898, pgs. 34–39). Yet, in the very same year, when Justin Winsor died and there was a possibility that James could have filled his vacancy as president of the American Library Association, she wrote that women should not be placed in such a position. She supported the appointment of Herbert Putnam instead.

What do you do with women like James? How do we understand her experiences? What light does she shed on our own?

I am slowly gaining insight by reading outside of the LIS literature. Over the past few decades, Linda Kerber, Alice Kessler-Harris, and other scholars have criticized scholars' projecting of 1970s-era Western feminism upon persons of different eras and places (for instance, see “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History,” Journal of American History 75, no. 1, June 1988, pgs. 9–39, and "Reframing the History of Women's Wage Labor: Challenges of a Global Perspective," Journal of Women's History 15, no. 4, Winter 2004, pgs. 186-206). There is even a rethinking of gender itself as a “category of analysis" (see Jeanne Boydston, “Gender as a Question of Historical Analysis,” Gender & History 20, no. 3, November 2008, pgs. 558–583). Yet I fear that if I write along such lines, I will be betraying many professional colleagues and friends. Many older librarians believe that gender discrimination has always been, and continues to be, endemic in libraries and in the wider workplace. Their lived experiences are hard to refute. Up until the 1970s, job advertisements often called specifically for male or female applicants. There was no Family Medical Leave Act or other benefits which help today's women to juggle both a career and a family.

Recruitment poster used in the 1950s or early 1960s by the
Pennsylvania Library Association. Found within the papers of
May Virginia Kunz Valencik, Allentown Public Library.
This said, vivid examples cannot lead us to conclude that men have always, everywhere, and for the same reasons been preferred to women in the library workplace. Taken out of context, recruitment posters like the one pictured at left can be read as examples of a widespread professional or social preference for male leadership. Further digging reveals, however, that they are documents of a phenomenon that is quite specific to a certain era and circumstance. The "Careers in Libraries" poster was part of a national post-World War II effort to find meaningful work for returning soldiers, especially officers who had gained command experience during the conflict. According to documentation I found in the archives of the Allentown Public Library, within the papers of an employee who had been a member of the Pennsylvania Library Association's recruitment committee, the profession aggressively recruited men in an effort that was not unlike today's "Hire Heroes"/"Show Your Stripes" movement doing its part to reincorporate veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq into civilian life. 

I continue to struggle to understand gender issues in librarianship. But here are two things I know: Hannah Packard James did not feel she was discriminated against in her time, and I don't feel discriminated against in my own.

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