Research Agenda for Women and Gender Studies Librarianship

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Research Agenda for Women and Gender Studies Librarianship

This is the original version from 2004. Go to the 2012 revised version.

The Research Committee of the Women and Gender Studies Section of ACRL became an official committee in 2001. It was charged to identify needed research, encourage collaboration in research, facilitate the acquisition of skills related to research and publishing, and promote an awareness of existing and ongoing research related or applicable to Women and Gender Studies librarianship. In order to determine potential research areas, the committee embarked on a project to first identify the research that had previously been conducted. This project resulted in the Bibliography of Scholarship on Women and Gender Studies Librarianship.

After collating this bibliography, the committee reexamined each citation to further explore the research articles and research questions as a means to identify research that needed to be revisited as well as areas of study that had never been researched. This effort, along with brainstorming about cutting edge and emerging issues in women’s studies and librarianship, resulted in this research agenda.

The research agenda is divided into two headings: intellectual access and professional issues. The subheadings under intellectual access all relate to the collection, maintenance, and organization of information related to women’s studies and how that information is made accessible to the users who need it.The subheadings under professional issues relate to librarianship and women’s studies librarianship and the practitioners thereof.

To maintain this agenda as a living document, we invite everyone to make suggestions for additions/deletions/modifications. Also, if you do research in one of the areas listed below, let us know and we will post your work or a citation to your work below the relevant question.

I. Intellectual Access

Indexing -- coverage
Indexing -- vocabulary
Users--Information-seeking behavior/Users--Information needs analysis
Collection development and evaluation
Women's archives and special libraries
Serials -- Online availability
Information literacy and women's studies in higher education

II. Professional Issues

Feminism & librarianship
Women's studies librarians as a professional subgroup
Future of the profession

Intellectual Access


This section addresses issues relating to the coverage of women’s studies information in library resources.

How well are women’s studies journals/topics covered in: general full-text databases (Proquest, Ebscohost), discipline-based databases, newspaper databases, and women’s studies databases?
How well do various popular search engines and directories cover women’s studies information? Do feminist web sites ever get top-billing by Google? How does the phenomenon of paying for page placement affect the availability of feminist information to researchers?
What special problems do the zines, e-zines, and weblogs so integral to the current feminist movement present regarding both current access and future access for scholars interested in this historical period?
Grey literature
How well is the grey literature of women’s studies (conference papers, NGO reports, newsletters, zines, international and domestic government information, etc.) represented in indexing and full-text resources? To what extent are non-US women’s studies serials indexed?
To what extent are visual, audio, and multimedia information sources about women and gender readily accessible to scholars?
How well are women’s studies topics covered in omnibus online reference works like xreferplus and Oxford Reference Online?

Indexing Vocabulary

This section addresses the use of language to identify women’s studies resources. This includes both indexing terms and subject cataloging terms that determine a resource’s physical placement in the library and online accessibility via search terms in databases. The power of naming, or attributing labels to works, is an especially critical one in women’s studies because the works themselves frequently call into question the nature of the knowledge hierarchy that traditional cataloging structures reflect.

Hope Olson points out three ways in which women’s studies challenges cataloging practice:

  1. Library of Congress Subject Headings have developed in a sexist society;
  2. women’s studies is an interdisciplinary field.
  3. feminist research orientations do not fit into categories designed for traditional research

Therefore, the act of assigning appropriate labels to women’s studies materials is often an act of knowledge creation and interpretation in itself.

Second, because of the dynamic and interdisciplinary nature of women’s studies, Olson argues that improving the flexibility of cataloging to encompass these challenges will ultimately be beneficial for all knowledge classification attempts in today’s “fundamentally unpredictable information environment.” It is crucial to research how subject access is currently being handled in online databases and how it can be improved, not just for the benefit of women’s studies practitioners, but for all researchers.

Finally, the issue of cataloging leads to very important theoretical questions that need to be answered by women’s studies librarians.

Should materials of interest to women’s studies researchers be grouped together physically, such as is currently the case in the HQs, or should they be scattered throughout the collection with the disciplinary books? Integration versus segregation has very important ramifications for the transformation of academic knowledge structures as well as access issues, and this question stems from cataloging and indexing practice. Again, studying how these issues are currently playing out is a fundamental exercise for deciding how the future can and should be shaped.
What do current taxonomies of gender-related concepts used in subject cataloging and database indexing look like? Are they different for every database? How and when is gender expressed in indexing/cataloging?
Paula Nameth, "A Case Study of the Presence and Classification of Women in the Arts and Women Artists in the Milwaukee Public Library’s Art Collection". Unpublished. Written for Hope Olson's L&I Sci 891 class at UW-Milwaukee.
Jill Osmond, "Women's Studies in Controlled Vocabularies: A Comparison of the ERIC Thesaurus and A Women's Thesaurus". Unpublished. Written for Hope Olson's L&I Sci 891 class at UW-Milwaukee.
How is gender expressed in subject indexing for children?
Are indexing terms evolving/emerging in key new areas of scholarly discourse? How does that process happen?

Users—Information-seeking behavior/Users—Information needs analysis

This section addresses the need for women’s studies librarians to understand how their users are trying to access information and what information they need. The interdisciplinary nature of women’s studies topics complicates both of these aspects.

When seeking information on women and gender, what information needs and information behaviors are commonly exhibited among specific user groups: undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, high school students, community activists, campus activists, women’s studies librarians, women’s studies majors, etc.?
What is the role of the academic librarian in serving the personal information needs of special user groups such as lesbians, battered women, minority women, etc., both inside and outside the university community?
How are women’s studies scholars using digital resources?

Collection Development and Evaluation

Women’s studies as a field is interdisciplinary and can encompass both popular and scholarly resources, as well as underground and alternative materials. Collecting and preserving this wide variety of materials poses a challenge to women’s studies librarians.

Jaclyn McLean, "Examining Collection Policies in use for Women’s Studies Collections at Universities in South Western Ontario". Unpublished. Written for Hope Olson's L&I Sci 891 class at UW-Milwaukee.
Suzanne Miller, "Women's History and Core Book Collections at Community College Libraries". Unpublished. Written for Hope Olson's L&I Sci 891 class at UW-Milwaukee.
Integration of electronic resources
To what extent have women’s studies collection policies incorporated e-resources, and how is access, both immediate and long-term, being assured?
What proportion of library budgets for women’s studies is being spent on print vs. electronic materials? How has this changed over time, and how does it compare to other disciplines?
Interdisciplinary overlap
How is the spending of women’s studies collection development budgets coordinated with the spending of disciplinary budgets? What are the advantages and disadvantages of duplication of print material in library systems that have a separate women’s studies library?
Materials outside the academic mainstream
How widely/successfully is grey literature, particularly zines, being incorporated into academic libraries/ women’s studies collections?
To what extent are academic libraries acquiring current popular, self-help, and activist titles for women and/or men?
To what extent are academic libraries acquiring third wave feminist literature that is often more popular than academic in nature?
Reference materials
Is women-focused reference publishing increasing, leveling off, or declining?

Women’s Archives and Special Libraries The libraries for women’s resource centers and women-focused archives have a crucial role to play in documenting and preserving records of women’s history and activism. In many ways the digital revolution has both helped and complicated this task.

To what extent have women’s studies research centers and archives been engaged with the community and advocacy and what effect has this had on both the community and the archive?
Melissa O'Grady, "Outreach: A Comparison of Activism in University-based and Independent Women’s Resource Centers & Archives". Unpublished. Written for Hope Olson's L&I Sci 891 class at UW-Milwaukee.
What is the relationship between collections in university or community women’s centers and libraries collections?
To what extent are women’s archives and special collections engaged in digitizing unique holdings? What funding, selection, and workflow models have they adopted?
Archiving electronic materials
What is being done/could be done to archive women’s online activism such as the League of Women Voters email Action Alert network? What is being done to archive other online feminist and women’s studies information (ezines, weblogs, etc.)?

Serials—Online Availability The relationship between women’s studies and the ongoing revolution in scholarly communication needs to be analyzed for its effects on both women’s studies scholarship and scholarly communication in general.

Where is women’s studies as a field in the transition from print to electronic serials? Are there trends (in content, ideology, design, etc.) in e-only women’s studies serials?
Where is women’s studies in the rush to merge and acquire between vendors?
Where is women’s studies as a field in changing scholarly communication?

Information literacy and women’s studies in higher education

The interdisciplinary nature of women’s studies and the parallel between some feminist pedagogical objectives and information literacy objectives make the intersection of information literacy and women’s studies a provocative area for study.

How can feminist pedagogy inform information literacy instruction?
How integrated is the women’s studies librarian into the life of the women’s studies department in terms of instruction?
Caroline Nappo, “I Still Feel Like There is More I Could Do For Them”: Collaboration Between Women's Studies Librarians and Women’s Studies Programs. Unpublished. Written for Hope Olson's L&I Sci 891 class at UW-Milwaukee on the relationship between women's studies librarians and the programs they serve.
What are current best practices for bibliographic instruction in women’s studies?
To what extent are information literacy competencies integrated into women’s studies curriculum?

Professional Issues

Feminism & Librarianship

The push for women’s studies as a subfield of librarianship came directly from the feminist activism of individual librarians. The relationship between feminism and librarianship is just as important today and the two schools of thought have much to offer each other.

Kristen Baldwin, "Why Librarianship is a Women's Profession". Unpublished. Written for Hope Olson's L&I Sci 891 class at UW-Milwaukee on the gendered nature of the profession.
Mary Richardson, "The Old Stereotype and New Images". Unpublished. Written for Hope Olson's L&I Sci 891 class at UW-Milwaukee on the image of librarians as discussed by librarian bloggers.

Library vs. information science

What is the gendered impact of the transformation from library science to information science? Do more males go into information science and what would this mean for librarianship with regard to the nature of the work, a possible gender division, and concomitant salary disparity?
Gilley, J. “Information Science: Not Just for Boys Any More.” American Libraries 37 (6): 50-51 (June/July 2006).

Digital Divide

Is there a digital divide by gender? What does it look like and what can librarians do to counteract it?

Librarian activism

What is the relationship between theory and activism with regard to feminism and the academic library?

Generational issues

The first generation of women’s studies librarians is starting to retire; how do the pioneers and today’s practitioners differ? How do younger generations of female librarians view feminism and its relation to their work?

Women’s studies librarians as a professional subgroup

In the late 1970s, with the establishment of separate departmental units devoted to women’s studies within big academic libraries, the specialized subgroup of women’s studies librarians came into existence. In 1983, a group of women within ALA decided there was a need to discuss women’s studies as a special focus of academic librarianship and began to organize the Women’s Studies Section, which became official in 1988. Today, the number of jobs that carry the sole title “women’s studies librarian” are still relatively few, but nearly every institution has a librarian whose job has this area of academic specialty subsumed under a broader title. It is therefore pertinent to ask what sort of specialized training, motivations, and career paths characterize these librarians in order to study the future of the professional subgroup.

What background do people entering this specialization today generally have? What training do they receive, what are their career goals, how do they stay current with the discipline, and what career paths do they take to get into women’s studies?

Future of the Profession

The future of women’s studies librarianship will be tied to the evolution of women’s studies as an academic field. As feminist and women-focused perspectives become integrated into discipline-based studies, women’s studies librarians can serve their information needs as well as those based in the interdisciplinary field of women’s studies, but budget lines and cross-department collaboration for collection development will need to be hammered out. To determine what this future might look like, the following questions need to be studied closely:

What is the current status and future outlook for stand-alone women’s studies libraries in large academic institutions? How are such libraries being used and by whom? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a separate women’s studies library versus including the materials in the regular collection?
How are library collections and services growing/changing to accommodate the phenomenal growth of women’s studies as a field of study despite the current state of budget retrenchment in academic libraries?

This page last updated: July 11, 2008