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Encoded: Gender, Technology, and Libraries
March 8, 2012 - 9:56pm

I keep thinking about a couple of blog posts Miriam Posner wrote on gender and digital humanities, particularly on the male privilege that invisibly influences the value surrounding learning to code and the encoding of cultural exchanges that will determine who feels comfortable in geek culture. It’s easy to fail to recognize how a community can make people feel welcome or feel excluded, and it’s not always obvious how gender intersects with prestige. The objections people raise – well, if women aren’t doing it, it’s because they don’t want to; what’s stopping them? etc. – crop up in any number of situations, from the dominance of males among Wikipedia editors to the depressing findings of the Vida project, which charts the gender imbalance in high-profile magazines and book reviews.

Bethany Nowviskie responded with a good post of her own, “Don’t Circle the Wagons,” and Mita Williams added some complexity of her own, particularly reflecting on the changes technology has wrought in the craftwork of libraries and the ways we talk about the future.

My field, librarianship, is a shot through with contradictions, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that it has long been perceived as a women’s profession. In the popular imagination, libraries are charmingly backward places that face extinction in the digital age. Even librarians are prone to talk in doomsday terms – but in reality libraries have been early adopters of technology and are generally pushing envelopes well before the students and faculty they serve can catch up.

Libraries are also places that tend to be collaborative rather than competitive. There’s a niceness about library organizations that innovators often find stifling, and a tendency toward caution and conservatism in decision-making. Yet in spite of that, think about how much has changed in libraries in the past two decades! That didn’t happen because library workers were timid and change-averse. And it didn’t happen because leadership fearlessly strode forward, pulling the reluctant workers along. It happened because there was work to do.

Bethany Nowviskie points out that people who get things done in digital humanities are in a funny place; they don’t tend to valorize theory over practice, yakking over hacking. They enact theory by making useful things. She writes, “coding itself has more in common with traditional arts-and-crafts practice than with academic discourse.” Library work is also about making useful things. Yet the technological sophistication required for nearly every library job is underestimated and discounted because it’s done by women. It might as well be cross-stitch or embroidery.

When I look at IT departments and the kind of credit their members get for being skilled and capable, there’s little question these are valuable employees doing important work. Yet when I have to argue for a library position, one that may involve setting up link resolvers, monitoring copyright practices, managing licenses, figuring out how to make the contents of new digital subscriptions visible across systems, transitioning from one complex system to another, or digitizing analog collections and making them discoverable online, I’m given the impression that these jobs are basically clerical. Though it’s not said out loud, the subtext is that library work is women’s work and therefore whatever technology is involved is just stuff clerical workers everywhere have to use. Like typewriters.

Too often, library workers are seen as passive drones doing uncomplicated and routine tasks that require no decision-making or learning. Library work, after all, is service performed for others. Libraries are just as innovative and forward-looking as IT organizations, and we are responsive to our users, perhaps to a fault. Yet it’s not because we are by nature passive. It’s because we know the library is not there for us, it’s there for the  community we serve. That may be how IT folks think of their work, but I don’t get that impression. They seem to be seen as entrepreneurial problem-solvers and engineers with special skills.

There’s a lot of frustration in libraries with co-workers who are reluctant to take on new tasks or learn new technology; as Mita puts it "are those with web skills obliged by management to do the digital work of colleagues with no skills?" There is too often a tendency to think digital projects are frills that can be carried out by a few employees with little support. There is also too much deference to authority in our organizational structures that sometimes do not encourage risk-taking or taking credit. All of these things have some basis, I suspect, in gender issues.

Yet I am proud of the service culture of libraries. I’m happy that we take the needs of students and faculty seriously. I’m glad that we are more likely to work together to sort out problems than to compete with one another. I’m pleased with the strides we’ve made, even if at times we aren’t  all adapting to new conditions at the same rate.

I don't think library workers get the credit they deserve for the way they've managed change. But there's one thing you can say about working in libraries: it's never boring.

 

 

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