A Profession for Women

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Four of the librarians from the Jacob Edwards Library and the black library cat, 1916. Courtesy of the Jacob Edwards Library via Digital Commonwealth.

Men from New England’s elite families were the predominant players in the early US library movement. These men viewed librarians like missionaries, bringing civilization and reform to the masses through educational opportunity. Many were well-connected graduates of New England’s colleges and some had departed other careers in law and ministry to begin second careers as librarians. Along with these men, a number of women from the elite classes volunteered at libraries, particularly for work with children. It was not until after 1900 that women would dominate the operational work of libraries, and longer still until they would have full administrative power and responsibility.

This particular gendered history underpins the founding of the American Library Association (ALA)—the first and largest library professional organization in the world. In 1876, 103 librarians from across the country—ninety men and thirteen women—met and resolved that the mission of the new ALA would be "to enable librarians to do their present work more easily and at less expense." Despite the rapid growth of women in the library profession, the ALA would not elect its first woman president, Theresa Elmendorf, until 1911.

In 1904, librarian Mary Cutler Fairchild would note that participation by women in American Library Association meetings was disproportionate to their attendance. Her research indicated that in libraries, women greatly outnumbered men, holding a large proportion of administrative positions but with little administrative responsibility. In addition, women did not hold positions offering the highest salaries, but rather appeared to perform the same level of work for less compensation.