Sunday, July 09, 2006


What Is and What Should Never Be

Last night, I caught a snippet of an interview on NPR, where the interviewee noted that remakes of Led Zeppelin songs are generally flops. Zeppelin fans look for a specific combination of factors: this specific drummer, this specific guitar sound, this particular vocal style. The songs fail to stand on their own; while you can play a Gershwin tune in the style of Led Zeppelin, you can't really play a Zeppelin tune in a Gershwin -- or any other -- style. (He illustrated this point by picking out an entertaining one-finger piano melody, recognizable as a Zeppelin song, but definitely not Zeppelin.)

This leads me in a roundabout way to thinking about library-related conferences, which fail or succeed due to a confluence of factors. You need engaging presenters, an accessible and functional location, enthusiastic attendees, a commitment on the part of conference organizers to make everything run smoothly, and so on. Subtract any one factor, and some attendees will have a nagging sense of wrongness. Subtract any one factor, and the conference is less than what it could be.

I'm coming to the issue late (as usual!), but have been watching the conversation Karen Schneider sparked recently with her post on 2.0: Where are the Women? (See also: Dorothea Salo, Grunch and the Library Coder, Linda Absher, It's a Man's World, and Karen Coombs, On Being the Library Web Chic.) Gender balance, particularly women's representation in technology-related programs or at hard-core techie conferences, can be one of these necessary factors. Some recognize it more consciously than others, but it's one piece of the greater whole that makes for a satisfying conference experience.

Some random observations. I don't think that there's a vast conspiracy here, but that sometimes conference organizers don't think to ask women -- or create an environment that supports everyone. Other issues come into play as well, though. I think the various commenters to Karen's initial post have it right about women in library technology being spread too thin. An anecdote: A few months ago, I asked a number of people to contribute to a work on library technology. The work's ended up with a 50/50 split between male and female contributors -- but, out of the people I originally asked, eight said they were stretched too thin to contribute: one man, seven women.

I say "no" more often than I'd like, partially due to childcare issues, partially due to being stretched too thin with other projects, and partially due to my brain being too full. (Alongside the professional track, I have the ongoing "are we out of kleenex and when's the kid's next dr. appt. and what do I need to defrost for dinner tonight and can I go another day without doing laundry and I need to pick him up from camp in 30 minutes so what can I start without getting into it too heavily and having to leave in the middle and did I put sunscreen on him this morning and I should call his friend for a playdate and the cat needs to go to the vet and I'd better send a birthday card to my mother-in-law" track.) Having the primary responsibility for childcare has changed the way I prioritize, and makes it less likely I'll go back to systems librarianship anytime soon -- or really burn up the library conference circuit.

Sarah Houghton comments specifically on the LITA Top Tech Trends panel at Steve Lawson's See Also, noting that the mix of contributors tends heavily toward academic librarians and mentioning the financial barrier to conference attendance, let alone participation, for a lot of us. At mfpow, a public library, professional development funding was virtually nonexistent and even getting time away to attend or give workshops could be problematic. I vaguely remember reading that academic librarianship tends to attract more men than public librarianship. (In this article on "Career and/or Children: Do Female Academic Librarians Pay a Price for Motherhood?" -- interesting reading in its own right -- Zemon and Bahr say women represent close to 70% of academic librarians.)

If anyone's seen updated gender breakdowns for systems librarians, please comment here; mine are from a few years back, so I'd love to take a look at newer stats. I'd particularly be interested in detailed breakdowns -- my sense is that, the more hard-core "techie" the job, the greater the gender imbalance, but that's based on anecdotal evidence and observation, rather than actual numbers.

I don't think there's a vast conspiracy either; in fact, that's just what I'm going to talk about in the second half of my posting on "It's a Man's World".

--The LL
As someone who does not like this situation and is trying to do something about it, I think it's worth acknowledging that it's darn hard to get anywhere when there are a number of things stacked against us in changing this:

1) There are more men than women in library technology (I don't have numbers here, but just looking around indicates this)
2) Women, as you've identified and I've experienced, tend to say "yes" less often (for perhaps the reasons you've identified and others)
3) Women themselves can perpetuate the problem (for example, one of the programs that Karen griped about as being gender-unbalanced was organized by women)

Code4Lib, which has been bashed for being gender unbalanced, is trying hard to recruit and engage women. But we have an uphill battle and we would appreciate the participation of more women in that online forum and at the conference. If there is some barrier standing in your way, then we want to hear about it so it can be removed -- preferably before we read about it on a blog somewhere.
Thanks, Roy, for taking the time to comment, and I think your points are on the mark. As far as Code4Lib specifically, though, I think that Dorothea is a better person to ask.
Rachel, Dorothea will of course have her own opinion of Code4Lib, but since she has removed herself from there she is probably not the best source of information on what those of us remaining with Code4Lib are doing to recruit and retain more women. I would say, however, that the bulk of our efforts will be going to addressing the inequities of the Code4Lib Conference, where it seems clear we can make substantive and effective changes.
I can appreciate that, Roy. I'm not sure I'm techie enough (especially since I'm no longer a systems librarian) to be a part of Code4Lib personaly, but I look forward to watching it evolve.
Thank you all for your discussion of this - it is great reading. I'm a library student interested in studying the gender balance in interest and knowledge of technology among LIS students, to see how it relates to recent analyses of practicing librarians.

I did a brief survey of my classmates already but I intend to refine my survey and re-send it. If those in this debate are interested, I could use some help identifying core competencies for tech librarians. Either way, I look forward to hearing more on this subject in the blogs.

xansurvey at
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home