Children’s Librarians

Profiles By: Mary Henley


Part One Gendered Libraries?

It does not take any formal research to discover that most children’s librarians are female. By walking into the public library, one sees that it is predominantly women working.  While I was waiting to interview Genevieve Price for the Women’s Archive Project, I realized there was not one male employee in sight. Once I had begun to interview sources for this project, six of the seven interviews with librarians that I conducted were with females. During our discussions, interviewees provided referral after referral of other librarians I should interview for more information. Each suggestion they gave me was that of a woman. I was intrigued. I decided to ask the librarians, not all of whom were children’s librarians, for their theory regarding their gendered environment. I asked each interviewee the same question: “Why do you believe the profession is dominated by women?” Some of them seemed to have never thought about the question before; others had ready explanations. Though they differed in the amount of time it took them to produce an answer, they all responded the same way: women are the predominant gender in the library because of low pay. In addition, public librarians often serve as literacy advocates, especially for children, a role often perceived as more appropriate for women. The women I interviewed describe the many ways that children’s librarians reach out to the public through bookmobiles, seminars to educate the community on the programs they offer, and by incorporating new programs that will enrich library collections as well as the minds of the patrons.

These statements prompted me to look more closely at the phenomenon, to explore and question the validity of their viewpoints. Furthermore, I was compelled to examine what social issues arise because of this gendered dynamic. Women have been consistently ushered into professions that are not desirable for men. For example, teaching, after the use of corporal punishment could no longer be used; nursing, after men realized that there is more to the field than just “pushing pills”; and then children’s librarians, an occupation that requires patience, a love of teaching, and community (read people, not just books) involvement. This essay examines how the gendering of professions, children’s librarians specifically, shape the kinds of activities in which they are engaged and the limits imposed on their professional image and opportunities for advancement. In order to explore the gendered nature of this profession, I will examine the stereotype of the female librarian, offer theories on why the occupation remains gendered, and show how female librarians escape from behind the brick walls to insert themselves into the community to advocate for literacy efforts.

The Omaha Public Librarians are the force behind this essay, but that is not to say that this problem of gendered roles does not exist in other libraries across the United States.  In fact, it is safe to assume that it does. I asked Karen Berry and Bernadette McMenamin, both children’s librarians for the Omaha Public Library, what the stereotype is of a children’s librarian to the general population:

Berry: “What do you think of when you think of a librarian?”

McMenamin: “Pinched face, stamping cards, lonely, with no friends.”

Berry: “And a woman.” (Berry Interview)

While the interviewees presented a stereotypical image of the librarian, The Omaha Public Librarians most certainly did not embrace these characteristics (apart from being women), whether they were retired or still working in the field.  All of the women were lively, talkative, and energetic, and they appeared to be doing their part to erase the image that the public has of the quiet, lonely librarian. However, this stereotype of a children’s librarian is deeply embedded in society and is difficult to re-shape. Furthermore, it is difficult to encourage men to enter into a “pink collar” job, like a children’s librarian, not only because of gendered stereotypes, but also because of the low income that accompanies the occupation.


Up Next

Part Two Income, Professional Advancement, and Working with Children


Berry alludes to fact that males are looking to be promoted quickly, make a higher salary, interact with children and the public as little as possible, and go into administration as the end goal. “Men that start as a librarian usually move up to either management situations or, if they have a teaching background, they go into the colleges” (Berry Interview). It seems that males do not go into the public libraries with the intention to remain a librarian who works with patrons, but instead to be promoted as quickly as possible in order to supervise other librarians.  Berry goes on to describe that a male has a greater likelihood of achieving the position he is applying for than a female who is far less of a rarity. The male librarian is more likely to get the job he wants,