Sunday, July 08, 2007

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (13)

Dewey’s attitude toward women provides another example of his mixed impact on the library world.The Boston Athenaeum had been the first library to employ women in 1857; this was yet another innovation Dewey seized upon and made his own. The school he founded at Columbia, the School of Library Economy, admitted women to its first class. Dewey took this step without consulting the university trustees, and it was the single most important factor in their decision to close the school just two years later (Dewey moved the school to the state university at Albany). In superficial retrospect, the decision looks like a pioneer move in women’s rights. But as his biographer Wiegland points out, Dewey actually used the admittance of women to the college to the same end he used their hiring in the library: to define the profession down. Women were already socially subordinate to the men who filled faculty roles; for Dewey, this subordination nicely mirrored the professional subordination of librarians to professors and other experts – a subordination he deemed necessary to the efficient workings of the library. While his colleagues in the ALA cultivated the authority to direct the reading of their patrons, Dewey eschewed this mandate. Library workers, after all, were far too busy cataloging books and putting them in patrons’ hands to trouble themselves with the choosing of books. As Weigand put it, Dewey didn’t realize that he effectively “robbed librarianship of a direct claim to the ‘authority’ to determine ‘best reading,’ thus significantly limiting its power in the world of professions.”

Page 144.

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