Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Apostles of Culture, Part I

In Part I of "Apostles of Culture," Garrison portrays the American public library in the late 1800s as attempting to be an arbiter of culture, one of the last bastions of the gentry elite. She also offers a sort-of Marxist critique of the library as a social agent or "safety valve" for the unwashed masses. Librarians and library leaders are characterized as misfits in the new Industrial Age; they were at odds with both the growing socio-economic elite and with the proletariat. Garrison profiles the librarians who formed the model of the American public library as out-of-touch with the patrons they aimed to serve. How and why did this disconnect lead to the marginalization of the library and its failure to become a grand social and academic institution in the U.S.?

In chapter two, Garrison draws many conclusions and generalization from the profile of thirty-six library leaders in 1885 (I found this small sample size to be a bit problematic). Here and throughout the text, Garrison's second wave feminist critique (I know, she was writing it in the 1970s) could stand the infusion of some third wave feminism and queer theory. Of those thirty-six library leaders, there were eight women, five of whom never married and two of whom married late in life. Garrison takes their "spinster" status at face value: "One can safely assume that they chose an active life of work because their intellectual power and advanced education alienated them from the traditional feminine role of domesticity" (21). However, I would like to read into the margins--is it possible that these women were lesbians? Is it possible that library work afforded them some escape from the a patriarchal and heterosexual-dominated culture? And who are the other educated, single women who clamored to become librarians from 1876 to 1920?


Nancy S. said...

I don't know if one can assume that because 5 of the 8 women chose not to marry for whatever reason we can speculate their sexual preference-that seems rather besides the point to me. I am inclined to speculate that these women became librarians because they didn't want to marry (or were not considered eligible for whatever reason) and thus needed to support themselves financially. However, I do not have evidence to support this theory like there is no evidence to support they were lesbians and like Garrison lacks evidence to suggest these women did not marry because they were alienated from society and traditional female roles.

Jennifer Gile said...

I agree with a lot of what both Deborah and Nancy have posted. A sample size of 36 is not the optimal size, yet we must keep in mind that the socioeconomic profile Garrison constructed was based on 36 librarians who held influential positions in 1885. Considering that the profession of librarianship was only coming into its own during this time, I think Garrison worked well with what she could- finding the statistics she did on 36 influential librarians probably wasn't the easiest task. Also, I found that Garrison did a good job of making it clear when she was speculating and making intellectual leaps from her evidence. From my point of view, she gave a fair analysis of her evidence, but did not attempt to make any universal, absolute statements from it.

As far as the issue of sexual orientation goes, I think it's a fair speculation though of course that is all it could ever be. Historians of gender and sexuality are uncovering more and more about the cultural norms in 19th century Victorian America and how certain institutions and careers made homosexual behavior more accessible (of course behind closed doors). I agree with Deborah that taking another look at Garrison's evidence through a different lense could provide some interesting insight. Or maybe not. It is always far too easy and dangerous to look back at a historical moment with our current perceptions and biases. Actually, looking back over what I wrote I realize I really concluded nothing. Oh well, it's still an interesting question.

Kelly said...

I reckon some of those librarians had to be lesbians.

In a footnote in Part 4 she does mention that in (then) contemporary times there seemed to be more gay men than you might expect in the library field and offers a couple of possible explanations for that, but Garrison seems to totally ignore the possibility of lesbian librarians.

Deborah said...

I should have included this in my original post--a quotation from chapter 2--"it is unlikely that these women were driven to outside work because of financial need" (20). That's what tipped me off and made me speculate that there was more going on than the women's desire to lead an intellectual life.

Eileen H. said...

I, too, had problems with Garrison's small sample size. However, I agree with Jennifer in that the library movement was just starting at this time, and perhaps, as a starting point, it is a good idea to examine the views/actions of the leaders of the movement. I don't fully agree with Jennifer, however, that Garrison didn't attempt to make universal/general statements because at various points I think she did. For example, when discussing the “woman question” controversy in the ALA in the 1930s (in the final section of the book), where some female (and a few male) librarians began to demand the need for an examination of the treatment of women in the library profession, Garrison writes, “Still, despite these few protests of the 1930s, the great majority of library women continued to silently suffer sexual discrimination with little dissent” (p. 235). Is her sample of 8 librarians enough to really give a clear picture to be able to make the above statement? While reading this section I wondered is it possible that there were examples of women resisting the prescribed role of “genteel library hostess” or fighting against the sexism in hiring procedures that Garrison did not find in her research? Perhaps her use of only “official” writings, such as ALA publications, library journals and the writings of the library elite limited her view of how women viewed themselves and were viewed in library work. Is it not possible that female leaders at the time might not want to risk losing their positions of power by writing or speaking out against the "accepted" views of the profession and the ALA on the role of women in librarianship? Therefore, one might need to look at women at other levels in library history to possibly find pockets of resistance.

Gillian D. said...

I think it is interesting how the limited sample size we are working with here allows more speculation in some ways than a larger one might. As Nancy said in her first post, we don't have evidence to support any one of the theories about what drew these women into librarianship. We also have no evidence to disprove any of the theories, and thus can find just enough to argue points either way.

To argue for Garrison's idea of them being alienated from society due to educate and intellect, I'm going to bring in some out side references, so bear with me. Henrick Ibsen wrote a play called "The Dollhouse," which takes place around the same time period as the first part of Apostles here. It is about a woman realizing that the standard life that she is expected to conform to, and has been conforming to, is stiffling her intelligence and has made her into a pet and decoration for her husband. It was a very upsetting play at the time, as it showed (sorry if this spoils it for anyone) a woman turning her back on the life she is expected to live and to be happy in. And this is getting long winded, but the point remains that this sort of thing was happening during this time period. Women were beginning to step out of the cages that society had gilted up so nicely for them and instead start using their own intelligence to survive. Garrison's stats seem to reflect that nicely.

Also, some of the not marrying may have been due to lesbianism, but some was probably also due to the women simply not wanting to. It was a slightly more foreign concept in those days, but today we see it a fair amount. A woman is no longer defined as a real woman by if she is a wife, but by her individual identity.