Magazine article American Libraries

Click! the Feminization of the Public Library. Policies and Attitudes Make Men the Great Unserved

Magazine article American Libraries

Click! the Feminization of the Public Library. Policies and Attitudes Make Men the Great Unserved

Article excerpt

Click! The feminization of the public library

FOR ME, THE REALIZATION began when I read the results of Bernard Vavrek's 1989 survey of small public library users in Pennsylvania. [1] The survey showed that showed that 80% of adult users were women. Vavrek later told me over the telephone about a nationwide survey--as yet unpublished--of 350 libraries, which showed that females make up 73% of adult library patrons.

Though the predominantly female clientele of all public libraries (not just small ones) has been pointed out before, these are very high figures. Frankly, I found them disturbing.

Not that I was disposed to argue; no public librarian can deny that we serve a lot of women. But I found myself looking for ways to deny the validity of these rather dramatic numbers.

"That doesn't mean men are only 20-27% of those using my library," I told myself. "After all, many women check out books for the entire family."

So, while I didn't exactly dismiss Vavrek's survey, I didn't brood about it either. As I coped with daily hassles, those high percentages slipped gradually to the back of my mind and lurked there, consigned to the category of "things to think about someday when I get caught up."

Then one night at dinner my husband, Russ, asked a question. "Why," he inquired, "doesn't the library have any books about trucks?"

"We do." I said automatically. "They're probably just checked out."

"No you don't," he said. "I checked the catalog. You have almost nothing, and what you do have is old stuff."

I had to pay attention to that. Russ is a bookmobile consultant, married to a librarian, and, unlike many patrons, competent at searching libraries. If he said there wasn't anything in our catalog, then there wasn't. Nevertheless, being a good librarian, I checked.

He was right; our holdings on trucks were pitiful. I considered the numbers of trucks on the road, trucking magazines, truck-reliant businesses, and people who drive trucks for money or fun, and decided the audience for such books must be considerable. So I thanked Russ for spotting a black hole in our collection and, since he habitually reads ads and reviews not seen by our staff, asked him to compile a short list of good books on truck history, design and maintenance, business trucking, and related matters. He gave me a list of a dozen titles, which I sent to the library's collection developer with a recommendation for purchase.

A couple of days later I got the list back with a note: "Which books on this list do you want?"

In the meantime, I'd discovered that our only adult book about late-model trucks was falling to pieces and there was a waiting list for it, so I told the collection developer I felt we should buy all of them, preferably several copies. I was quite fervent about it.

Caught between may passionate plea and a perpetually too-small budget, she objected strenuously, "But I can't by 12 books just about trucks!"

"Why not?" I said.

"There's not enough demand."

Click! Suddenly, I flashed on Vevrek's survey, and a constellation of observations from years of library work fell neatly into place around it. I found myself looking at a patter I had never noticed before: We have "feminized" the public library.

We didn't intend to do it--it seems to be an inadvertent side effect, but we have made public libraries--and to a certain extent all libraries--into institutions that are hostile or useless to most males.

"Bisexual" books

Whether we like it or not, men and women tend to read different kinds of books. Of course there is overlap--many books are "bisexual," so to speak--but every librarian knows that despite years of feminism there is still a difference in the reading habits of the sexes. It takes more than one generation to change poeple's basic cultural programming. …

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