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2002 Program: Kelly Barrick Hovendick

"Women, Technology & Libraries"
ACRL- Women's Studies Section Program 2002

Recently, an unusual number of advertisements have crept up that are exposing librarians for who they really are: women who drive their Hondas home after work, only to "relax" for a few minutes with their Natural Contours vibrator, before hitting the clubs to drink their rum and cokes.

These ads have all run in the last six months in GQ, Rolling Stone and Bust magazines. Whether you abhor these ads or not, one thing is for sure: librarians are changing - not only is the very nature or essence of our jobs due to information technology, but also the image of librarians as well. This impacts women more than men due to one sad fact - the image of male librarians remains the same - white men in positions of administration or decision-making.

The very first ALA meeting only had 13 women in attendance. Boston Public hired their first woman clerk in 1852. By 1878 only two years after ALA was established, 2/3 of all library workers were women. In a picture of the first graduating class of the University of Illinois (1900), seventy-five percent were women - all of whom had buns in their hair and glasses. Somewhere in the 50s, coifed-hair replaced the bun, but the spinster hiding in the stacks image stuck around. Up until recently that image has steadfastly clung to us. However, in the last five years, many websites have popped up that demonstrate that librarians' representations of themselves are changing. Some librarians (such as "Biblia the Avenger") have taken aggressive measures to start changing our image. How and why is this happening now? Information technology. Not only is it required in our jobs, but the very use of it as a communication tool is itself a mechanism for "spreading the word" that we're out and we're proud to be sporting our lipstick, tattoos and body piercings while belly-dancing the night away.

But why am I talking about the image of librarians during a discussion on women and information technology? Katherine Adams in her article "Loveless Frump as Hip and Sexy Party Girl" writes that "it is precisely now when librarians are seeking to redefine the profession in light of new information technology, that we would do well to reclaim the shriveled old spinster as an important part of our collective identity and professional history." A new breed of librarians is emerging that is both embracing and/or abandoning past stereotypes and warding off potential negative stereotypes as well. As sexy and hip as Parker Posey is in the 1995 movie "Party Girl," she is still portrayed with her nose in the stacks, learning the Dewey Decimal system even if she is smoking pot while doing so. Adams also suggests that librarians are increasingly associating themselves w/ computers and data rather than books and knowledge. While many males have earned the derogatory title "computer geek," women are developing websites such as cybergrrl.com, cyberdiva.org or webgrrls.com, coining concepts such as "cyberfeminism" and forming organizations such as Joan's Center for Women and Information Technology and WITI - Women in Technology International which all portray technology as a positive thing and promote its use and empowerment among women.

Embracing technology is not an option anymore in our profession. Lynch and Robles Smith examined 202 job ads in C&RL News between 1973 and 1998 and found that by 1998, all academic job ads included routine use of technology.

If you look at the progression of information technology in the field, one can see that there was a gradual evolvement to the routine and essential use in existence today. Computer automation in libraries has been increasing since the 1950s when it was first used in engineering libraries. In the 1958-1960 volume of Library Literature, the heading "computer" showed up for the first time with only eight entries listed. From this point on, small advancements such as the Medlars system and the eventual development of Dialog were made which contributed to the first true searchable database. The first direct reference to the production of a single machine - readable bibliographic record came in 1960 from a report prepared by L.R. Bunnow. In five short years, over a dozen libraries had their own formats. With this in mind, the Library of Congress and the Council on Library Resources set out to create a standardized machine - readable record -- what is now known as MARC format (Kilgour 225).

Around 1951, a small group of academic librarians began meeting to discuss cooperative arrangements among the small, liberal arts colleges of Ohio (Maciuszko 2). However, it wasn't until 1967 when the first annual meeting of its forty-eight paid members took place that the development of OCLC (Ohio College Library Center, Inc.) truly began.

These few events are just a small sample of the steps that were instrumental to the development of information technology in libraries.
Adams suggests that "… information technology (as we know it today) is refiguring the routines, practices and status of professional librarians, the librarian stereotype is, once again, a subject for scholars and practitioners within LIS. In recent years, digital technology has transformed how librarians identify, collect and organize information." This job skills revision provides a perfect opportunity to change our ways of thinking regarding our image. Since information technology is necessary and continually evolving in society today and because we are part of this revolution in the most basic way - education - we need to step up and assume the responsibility and power that comes with such a role. Hall in her article "Librarianship, A New Type of Profession" supports this by writing that "the major reason given for the librarian's enthusiasm for online was not the technology but the roles they assumed upon its implementation."

However, differing views exist that question the expectations and roles of librarians presently and in the future. Roma Harris has written extensively on the potential "de-skilling" of librarians. De-skilling refers to the replacement of library workers' skills by computer automation. While this may be the case in some occupations that are becoming more dependent on computers, recent literature suggests that librarianship is adapting and evolving to the demands of technology.

Though the mechanisms for acquiring and distributing information may be changing, we, as librarians, are still doing it. Not only are we still organizing the information, and, therefore, the knowledge, we are also responding to the need for increased instruction as a result. When looking at the level of computer knowledge combined with the ability to teach in a one-on-one setting or a classroom environment plus the necessity of knowing basic components of too-many-to-count databases, one can easily see that librarians' role are not threatened; quite the opposite, our roles are more vital than ever. The development of "information specialist" positions in many non-academic institutions is evidence of the necessity to have a person with these skills. Unfortunately, an "information specialist"(AKA librarian) in a law firm, for example, is paid almost twice as much as those of us with the job title "librarian."

There continues to be debate over the role that women librarians play in the field. According to Harris, librarians are "apparently not seen to be capable of grasping technological complexities nor are they perceived to be up to the job of managing the organization, whether it be in the form of a traditional library or an amalgam of 'information services.'" While some tekkies outside of libraryland may question librarians' roles in the actual creation of information, many librarians are actively creating and distributing information themselves. Female librarians do create web pages, pathfinders, web-based tutorials, CD-ROMs and databases to bring together useful and organized information.

How valuable are we as librarians in this day and age? Are we promoting the truly valuable -almost necessary - role that we assume as teachers of information skills to students, faculty and community users? With the transformation to an information technology-dependent environment within libraries, the female majority needs to be assertive about the tech. roles she is assuming. The IT industry is economically dependent and male-dominated. It only makes sense for one to assume that these two factors could precipitate an increase of men into the library profession via information technology. With this increase yet another possible avenue to gaining access to power by men in libraries is opened. Michael Gorman in his article "A Bogus and Dismal Science, or the Eggplant that Ate Library Schools," wrote that an information scientist is a man who doesn't want to be called a librarian." It's interesting that already this change in job titles is indicative of changing trends in librarianship. One can only wonder what this is going to do to the demographics of the students enrolling in LIS programs across the country. Will more men enter the field of librarianship? If so, what kind of position does this put us in? Karen Coyle in Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace asserts that "[t]o question the masculinity of computers is tantamount to questioning our image of masculinity itself: Computers are power, and power, in our world, must be the realm of men". It is vital that women librarians take advantage of information technology to step into positions within libraries that would afford us access to this power. Kris' presentation will talk more about this topic.
Rosslyn Reed's article "From Librarian to Information Scientist: Technology and Occupational Change in a Traditional Woman's Occupation" further supports the increasing attraction of men into LIS by stating that "with the introduction of the new information and communication technologies, a change in name to 'information scientist' and the embracing of an ideology of information management for the 'information scientist,' more men are attracted to the area." Recent literature agrees that more men are entering the field. To what degree, in what positions and in what salary brackets remains to be an area that needs to be researched more in-depth.

Though seemingly unrelated, we've looked at how the image of librarians is changing. Information technology is contributing to this by not only providing a tool with which librarians can communicate to those outside of libraryland the range of interests and activities that we have, but also as an elevation of the status of library professionals. The growth of information technology in the field has caused and continues to cause some degree of uncertainty about what our roles in the future will entail. It also questions the emergence of more men in the profession and the impacts of such a demographic change. Though I offer no suggestions, I do hope that you go away with something to think about - in what direction do you want the profession to go in? Information technology can produce many exciting and beneficial possibilities in the field, but we need to be assertive about our integral roles and demand the respect that we deserve. Even while driving our fast cars and relaxing after work…..

I'd like to close with the following quote: "As individuals become more responsible for their physical health, the medical profession has altered its educational approach and experimented with assigning job responsibilities along new lines. As individuals become more responsible for their information, the library and information studies professions must move effectively and swiftly to support the effort to meet that responsibility in practice, education, and research. The shift continues in any case."


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July 18, 2013