BackTalk: Gender Bias in Libraries?

By Adam Holland

In his book Years of Minutes, Andy Rooney, the acerbic 60 Minutes commentator, makes ten suggestions about libraries and librarians. The tenth one states, “The best librarian I know is a man but I prefer mothers, nurses and librarians to be women.”

Apparently, Rooney’s thoughts are not all that uncommon. My twentysomething peers have often asked me what it’s like to be a male librarian. While that question has offered me many opportunities for a humorous response, and humor can be a great way to break down stereotypes, in recent months I have begun to ask myself the same question in a more serious manner. Is there a significant preference among library patrons about the gender of their librarians? Further, given the overwhelming majority of female librarians, is there a deep-seated gender bias in the profession itself?

Man down

At least in principle, the gender imbalance in librarianship is worth noting. In practice, however, I’ve found it difficult to assess. In 2005, I graduated from a university in Australia with the equivalent of the American MLS. I was the only male completing the degree. Going through university I enjoyed a diverse collection of peers in terms of national background, age, and experience but not gender. Throughout my education I chose not to reflect on this imbalance because I believed we all came to library school for our own personal reasons and that gender had nothing to do with it.

My first impressions, however, were shaken in my last semester. A female librarian in a senior position at the state library in Australia asked me how I planned to overcome “gender bias” in my career. I asked her to clarify.

“Most of the managers in libraries are female, and you are not,” she said. I said something about being considered on the basis of skill and experience.

She smiled a smile somewhere between sardonic and pitying.

“Naïveté will only get you so far,” she said.


Gender bias in libraries remains unclear to me, both in existence and in effect. Even though my first year working in a public library showed me no such principles in force, could they exist—and could I just have no clue?

As that senior librarian suggested, when I applied for a job at a public library in Texas, all three managers making the hiring decisions were women. Once hired, my department consisted of five women and two men, including myself. In other departments, women comprised the entire population of degreed librarians.

According to statistics in both the United States and Australia, such a work environment is not at all unique. Strangely, however, statistics also show that despite being in the minority, men, on average, make more money than their female counterparts.

Once on the job, however, I felt more strongly that quality of work, skill, and ability took precedence. In the opportunities I was offered at my library, I did not once interpret gender to have played any role at all, and the same seemed true for my colleagues.

Private preferences

I do suspect, however, that some public library patrons hold Rooney’s view, either expecting or preferring their librarians to be women. In my previous job, I definitely got the feeling that patrons especially liked dealing with two of my female coworkers. That, of course, doesn’t necessarily point to gender bias; they were good librarians. While most of us strive to hold to tenets of equality in society, we often entertain private preferences that go against those beliefs. I would prefer the midwife delivering my child to be a woman, for example. A man could surely do just as good a job. But I’d prefer a woman.

How far such private choices extend in the library profession is at best murky. But while we may hold private, internal preferences, it is vital always to afford equal respect to a minority gender.

One eye open

I am a librarian because I love the work and believe in the principles exhibited in libraries. It is as simple as that.

So far, awards at university, promotions at work, and the distribution of responsibilities seem to be genuinely independent of gender and based only on the relevant skills of the people involved.

I still do not feel the need to have “a plan” for avoiding gender bias, as suggested by that senior librarian. Nevertheless, I do intend to avoid sheer naïveté, and I will keep one eye open for evidence of that pitying and sardonic smile I remember so vividly.

Author Information
Adam Holland was born in Texas, completed his library degree in 2005 and now lives in Australia, where he works as an Information Services Librarian.
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