19th century, Humanities

A Life’s Work: Minnie James and Images of the Woman Librarian

By Mona Sakr

Minnie James

Minnie Stewart Rhodes James (1865 – 1903) was appointed Head Librarian in the People’s Palace Library, East London in 1889. She was a respected member of the Library Association, and presented a number of papers to the Association, some of which discussed opportunities for women to take up paid positions in libraries. James was a librarian at a time in which female librarians were a small minority, and the way in which she wrote about her own experiences, and the way in which she has been represented since, gives us an insight into the impact of women librarians on the nature of the profession – one in which intellectual content has been ascribed more or less importance over time. Using Minnie James’ life, writing and memory, the changing relationship between perceptions of women, intellectuals and librarianship can be explored. Here, two articles written – in 1892 1900 – by James on the subject of women librarians will be considered.

Between 1881 and 1911, the proportion of middle class women employed increased from 12.6 per cent to 23.7 per cent (Rubinstein, 1986, p. 70), and this group of workers were associated with particular attributes which met ‘the needs of business, the professions and government for docile, well-educated and cheap labour’ (Rubinstein, 1986, p. x). Through the design of training for librarians – a process which interacted with the changing demographic of those to take up the role – the profession became closely associated with a gendered set of skills. Thus, it was acceptable to employ female librarians since they had ideal features including ‘nimble fingers’ and a ‘sense of order, attention to detail, willingness to do tedious work, and willingness to serve’ (Wiegand & Davis, 1994, p. 229).

Minnie James, in the article of 1892, mirrors these sentiments: ‘a librarian must know something of the art of binding and repairing books, attending to small repair… women are peculiarly suited to small repairs in the library’ (James, 1892, reprinted in Thornton, 1966, p. 247). James also mentions the need for ‘patience and tact’ (p. 247), again promoting feminine service as a core ideal of librarianship. While the works of earlier librarians, including the celebrated intellectual Leibniz, had explored the serving role of the librarian, the wave of professionalisation, occurring both in America and Britain, codified the expectations of the serving librarian, and related it to the growing presence of the women in the profession – it became an extension of the traditional motherly role and the management of the household (Garrison, 1979). The preoccupation with providing a good service for the individual users of the library acted in direct contradiction to the expectations placed upon an intellectual, and thereby situated librarianship as outside of the intellectual sphere. According to Collini (2006) the intellectual’s activity was seen ‘as cultivating mental and imaginative capacities beyond the ordinary’ (p. 54). Thus, intellectual work satisfied long-term needs related to the creative and analytical capacities of society as a whole, rather than the immediate needs of individual others.

In the article of 1892, Minnie James supports the call for ‘nimble fingers’, just as she claims that ‘to be a librarian one cannot form too high an ideal of the work required…’ (cited in Thornton, 1966, p. 243). The suggestion that women can enter librarianship is accompanied by the rhetoric of professionalisation and the loss of the intellectual librarian. However, as her personal experience grows through a position at the Library Bureau in America, where the proportion of female librarians was growing rapidly, Minnie James is relased, to some extent, from the crippling humility which characterises this earlier article. Women’s presence in librarianship in America had increased to 20 per cent by 1870, and to 75 per cent by 1900 (Phenix, 1987, p. 36). In an article of 1900, James refers to her role as librarian as a ‘life’s work’ (p. 292) and powerfully states that ‘if the best professors and instructors are not too good for a university, the best educated, most widely read and highly cultured persons cannot be too good for library work, which in its requirements is kaleidoscopic, and in its demands on the library resources and the brains of its librarians variable and sudden’. In the same article, James writes confidently about the need for women to have equal opportunities for library work, citing the successes of highly-paid female librarians in Europe, including Signorina Sacconi in Italy and Froken Valborg Platou in Norway.

Minnie James’ understanding of the librarian’s intellectual life seems to change drastically over the course of her lifetime. As her physical and social landscape widens with the move to America, her apologetic tone fades and the disguise of de-intellectualised professionalisation is discarded. In their place is the confident assertion that women librarians can build careers upon professional practice, but also upon intellectual foundations. Which of these mentalities however, that of 1892 or that of 1900, is represented in the memory of Minnie James? In Thornton’s (1966) Selected Readings in the History of Librarianship, a seminal work in the field, the quotation chosen to precede the profile of James is taken from the article written in 1892 (including the sentiment that ‘a librarian… should not have too high an ideal for the work required’). This article is also the one chosen to be re-printed in full following the profile. Thus, it is not enough to recognise the pioneering spirit of Minnie James and write her into library histories. We must also examine the way in which established memory surrounding individuals’ lives might constrain our understanding of their contributions. The memory of Minnie James, centred on her earlier and more modest perceptions of the woman librarian as opposed to her later ideas, is a prime example of this constraint.

Collini, S. (2006) Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain. New York: Oxford University Press.
Garrison, D. (1979) Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876 – 1920. New York: Free Press.
Phenix, K. (1987) The Status of Women Librarians. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 9 (2), pp. 36 – 40.
Rubinstein, D. (1986) Before the suffragettes: woman’s emancipation in the 1890s. Sussex: The Harvester Press.
Thornton, J. L. (1966) Selected Readings in the History of Librarianship. London: Library Association.
Wiegand, W. A. & Davis, D. G. (1994) Encylcopedia of Library History. New York: Garland Publishing Inc.