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Black and white photograph of librarians, mostly women, working with catalog cards in the Processing Department of the Library of Congress.
Librarians working with catalog cards in the Processing Department of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Harris & Ewing, photographer, ca1917. Prints and Photographs Division. Library of Congress

The Ambitious Girl

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This week I have been relocating to a new office. This is my first move since I joined the Library over ten years ago and boy have I accumulated a vast collection of files and paper. Many of these files have been buried away and it takes a move like this for some interesting stuff such as my folder of “librarian articles” to resurface. This folder is full of late 19th and early 20th century commentary written about the library profession. Although the blatant tone of sexism and classism are evident in these early works, the descriptions of the spirit of my predecessors can be inspiring. One of my favorite finds is the chapter on librarianship from Profitable Vocations for Girls (1915) which describes the character of a librarian:

“To make a profession of her employment, the librarian must be a professional woman. She must have breadth of interest and understanding, substantial enthusiasm for her work, power of thought and initiative…” (p.139)

The chapter also contains descriptions of library school, different types of libraries, and librarians (reference, cataloging, circulation, administration). There is even a nod to working at the Library of Congress for the ambitious girl:

“The ambitious girl may aim to take her place in the Library of Congress, among those who examine all books, and make classifications for libraries throughout the country, or she may try to improve on the accepted methods of classification.” (p. 142)

Black and white photograph of a woman, possibly a librarian, processing books in German with calendar above her dated September 1949, at the Library of Congress.
A woman, possibly a librarian, processing books in German at the Library of Congress, 1949.

As a reference librarian I believe that the basic principles of my work remain constant- I help people who use the library and I understand how to find information. Truly, I am not so different from the librarians of the past and these old “librarian articles” are a lesson and a reminder about the core values of librarianship:

“The reference librarian also must be a scholar. She is called upon to help all those who use the library…she must be skillful in the use of encyclopedias, bibliographies, biographical dictionaries…she must be able to judge a book by glancing through it, and must keep in touch with new publications, new inventions, and current events. She must be pleasant and agreeable in dealing with people, quick to understand their difficulties and ready to help without embarrassing them by too much attention.” (p. 142).

The chapter ends with sections on “A Librarian’s Job” and “A Busy Day with a Reference Librarian” that contain quotes from working librarians of the 1910s. Their remarks are a reminder that to be a good librarian you must have “Patience, resourcefulness, versatility, and a sympathetic knowledge of people…” (p. 146) and the “detective instinct is one of the most useful traits a librarian can have.” (p.147)

Maybe you will find inspiration from the past too? You can read a digital copy of Profitable Vocations for Girls (1915) here and the chapter on librarianship can be read here.

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