My thoughts on #radlib15 part 5 – Facilitating a session and gender issues in librarianship

Following lunch, the next session I attended was my own…of course. Ian Clark and I pitched a session together about setting up local networks. The reasoning behind this is firstly because we have both been heavily involved with the formation and organisation of a local RLC network (Oxford for me, and London and SE for Ian), and secondly because when we were chatting about it, we agreed that local groups can be more effective when it comes to getting things done. There was some concern that things seemed too London centric, although many who identify with the collective live elsewhere so we were hoping to encourage people toward action and address issues and barriers people were concerned about facing should they give it a go. Now, over a month since the gathering there have been stirrings of at least 2 more local networks forming which is incredibly exciting news indeed. However, I think I shall leave talking about my session at that as I’ve already said more or less all there is to say on it in my round up for the RLC Oxford blog, which can be read here.

Instead, I shall move on to discussing the next session I attended as this was definitely a super interesting and thought provoking discussion!

The idea behind the session was, from my understanding, to look at ideas of librarianship through a bit of a feminist lens. The library profession is very much dominated by women, yet there are still a great deal of men working as managers or in high earning posts in the field. This is very interesting as the profession is seen as a ‘feminine’ sort of job, yet it is still one in which men excel. That aside, this led us on to thinking about power structures (always fascinating and important to keep in mind), in the field and then onto an interesting discussion about power structures in relation to radical librarianship. The remainder of this post will not take a linear format as instead I shall gather my thoughts under subheadings for simplicity.

Gender relations/roles in librarianship and feminist stuff:

As mentioned previously, librarianship is very much seen as a female profession. There are two dominant stereotypical images of librarians –

The ‘hot’ librarian, who makes sultry eye contact with you over the top of her glasses:

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

Or, the frumpy and grumpy old lady librarian who guards her books like a dragon hoards gold

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

There are two very serious issues here. The ‘sexy’ stereotype is fuelled by the male gaze. It ignores the fact that librarians are skilled professionals, often with postgraduate degrees, and reduces them to objects of lust. It also pretty much erases the fact that men are librarians too. Also, lots of us librarians are super hot, but we don’t walk around with our glasses halfway down our nose making eyes at you with bulging cleavage because we’re professionals with jobs to do, so if that lame fantasy could die out the world would be a better place. As for the frumpy stereotype, it casts the profession negatively as being the mainstay of unapproachable frosty older women which is potentially off putting. Personally, I quite enjoy telling people I’m a librarian because I find it hilarious when people cannot fathom that young people actually do that as a job, but people genuinely do believe the frumpy stereotype is true. It certainly isn’t. However, back to the issue at hand, these two stereotypes of women in libraries to me are so negative because they portray two very two-dimensional images of womanhood – one where we’re valued only as a sex object and the other where we are dismissed because we are no longer sexually attractive thus no longer worth seeing as a person beyond the frumpy clothes. Ladies who work in libraries, like all women are a diverse range of people, and I actually know far more librarians who are *super cool* and covered in tattoos or dress amazingly or do cool stuff like play in bands than those that fit either stereotype so really, there’s very little validity behind them!

Aside from the damaging gender stereotypes which surround librarians, there are still definite patriarchal power structures in place. In all of my roles, the departmental managers have been male. In one of my roles, all three librarians (and then 2 out of 3) were male, whereas almost all library assistants I have worked with have been women. I think there could be a number of factors that affect this, so I am not going to suggest why this is the case or try and demean any men who have carved themselves a successful career in libraries (I’m sure it is also difficult for men going into librarianship as it isn’t necessarily considered a particularly masculine job) but I do think, considering the significant dominance of women in the field, it is unusual that men still seem to hold more of the top positions of power, and I feel this needs to be talked about, but for the sake of brevity I shall move on to my next stream of thought.

Power structures in librarianship:

Following on from what I started considering about gender, I started looking at power structures in librarianship from a more general sense. This is not an easy career to get into, and it’s becoming less and less accessible for those who aren’t white and middle class. I readily accept that I fit in that category, although I do identify with a great deal of working class concerns having grown up in what many people the government would consider an ‘underprivileged’ background. I am going to library school next year, but this is only possible because I have been awarded an incredibly generous scholarship that rewards academic excellence in those who may not have had the easiest access to a good higher education. I feel very uncomfortable talking about being ‘deprived’ because I am aware I am also privileged in many other ways, but I wanted to clarify that whilst I am certainly in a position of privilege for many reasons, when it comes to going into a career that more or less requires a postgraduate degree, (I hope) I’m not speaking entirely from the top of an ivory tower. I’m perhaps just chilling in the mid-section somewhere, peering out the window.

Librarianship is not as diverse a profession as it should be, and I feel like this is related to the power structures that exist in the field. It demands a qualification that marginalised groups are least likely to be able to afford to do, and with less and less funding for these courses available, plus more competition for jobs, the profession is becoming even more closed off to those who are less fortunate. In the Library with the Lead Pipe published an interesting piece about ethnic diversity in librarianship that is well worth a read, but I feel that I am not the most qualified person to start a discussion on race issues in librarianship so I will not say anything further for now beyond the fact that it saddens me to think a profession which promotes and values equality, diversity, intellectual freedom and the public good so much could be so non-inclusive.

Power structures in relation to radical librarianship:

RLC is a non-hierarchical collective. Except much in the way that a library isn’t neutral despite protesting otherwise, hierarchies can form accidentally. Now I must say, those I speak with who have been more involved with RLC than I have, and for longer, are very aware of this and, I feel, do an excellent job of remaining mindful of this and always supporting and encouraging new people to get involved and feel welcome. I did consider the fact, however, that perhaps RLC doesn’t come across that way until you take the plunge and get involved. There’s also some real complexity here, as in order to organise things you do need people to take a lead with things and take on responsibility, which can lead to hierarchies being solidified in the minds of participants and observers. I feel RLC tackle this well, by remaining open in their communications and forming temporary working committees for events that anybody can join. This is perhaps the part of radical librarianship I struggle most with, as I find that being organised is often equated with being a leader – sometimes I am seen as being somehow ‘in charge’ of the Oxford group because I organise the meetings and this is a power structure I’m struggling to get away from. At the discussion in Huddersfield when these concerns came up we did all agree that there’s a difference between leading and facilitating, but it is certainly still a difficult space to negotiate and I do wonder if other people involved in RLC share in this struggle? On the other hand though, I also appreciate the way it encourages me to question myself a bit more and consider whether I am acting in a way which oppresses, or in a way which facilitates, so I do feel it is worth the struggle.

I feel like this session probably left me thinking the most about a variety of different things and inspired the most thought into other areas and having spoken to some really cool and interesting women at the session definitely felt galvanised toward something, but I am not yet sure of what this is yet. I’ve clearly got a great deal more to digest around these different topics.




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