7. Gender and Computing in the Push-Button Library

Greg Downey

"...in order to begin to understand the recent history of women's engagement with computing- part of a larger project of analyzing technological change together with the changing social meanings of both femininity and masculinity, which we might refer to as "gender"- we must explore a whole range of sites where women actively encountered, employed, and challenged computer technology."


Punch card keypunching and verifying was "hardly outmoded" in 1971, Sperry-Rand insisted, since its new equipment could verify the stack of 20,000 cards (left) in "an eight hour day" compared to earlier throughput on right.

his chapter examines computing within the library setting, since the field was dominated by women throughout the development of general-purpose programmable computers, though this is no simple task when one considers the large variety of different library settings (research and academic, public vs corporate, urban vs suburban, size, etc). Libraries of any scale and size act as an internetworked information technology system, comprised of human and material components, and in the early 1960s the decades-old dream of "library automation" using punch-card technology and microphotography techniques, quickly and publicly shifted to ideas of "library computerization" based on electronic catalog records and networked communication systems. This "library of the future" was very much constrained by the gender dynamics of the present. In May 1964, Wilson Library Guide published an "Intelligent Woman's Guide to Automation in the Library," meant as a straight-forward explanation of the potential contributions that computers could bring to a library setting. It claimed, among other things, that the librarian resistance to automation was rooted in fear and anxiety, and that "being traditionally humanistic, librarians doubt their capacity even to utilize anything that is scientifically derived." While the fact that a professional publication written entirely by men would use such highly gendered language to tout the benefits of computing is unsurprising, rather the striking feature here was that librarianship was a mostly female-dominated field, and had been since Melvil Dewey began to recruit women to librarianship based on the then-current stereotypes of them having a higher attention to detail and a nurturing moral role, coupled with the fact that they could be paid less than men for the same labor, regardless of age, education, or experience.

This gendered wage division of labor was consistent across all sectors of libraries, as was a vertical division of labor that disproportionately placed men in roles of power and authority over women, and a horizontal division that saw women and men doing different tasks at the same level (women were simultaneously given the most meticulous back-office technical tasks and the most "nurturing" front-desk jobs such as running children's story time). The feminine role of librarian has long been placed in opposition to supposedly masculine technological change, both in popular culture (Desk Set, 1957, starring Katharine Hepburn is a good example), and within the professional librarian field, with advertisements for library computer systems showing female librarians using the machines only to assist in speedier information processing for male patrons rather than using the computers for their own information-seeking, and (not always but frequently) men in the profession arguing that libraries should guard their "feminine qualities" as embodied by the female librarians because they would need to continue to interact with people until computers could be accessed from the home.

"The case of library computing reminds us that computer hardware and software both manipulate computer data, and that the production of this data- and the metadata that defines and organizes it-might reveal a different kind of computer history than we are used to telling."


In 1971 Sperry-Rand Univac publicized keypunching by cloistered Carmelite nuns in the Bronx, New York. "The nuns, whose life is devoted to silence and isolation from the world, enter data on punched cards during their periods allotted to manual labor in their daily schedules."

At the same time that the library was being computerized, it was grappling with its internal gender dynamics, and by 1969, University of Illinois library science professor Anita Schiller published a study of the gender wage disparities in librarian occupations, and the next year the American Library Association launched the Task Force on the Status of Women to address such disparities. The stories of gender discrimination and computerization diverge through the 1970s and 1980s though, with many writers discussing issues of gender within library spaces and others discussing technical advancements such as the Ohio College Library Center (OCLC) project to connect cataloging computers across space and time, or the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) projects aimed at making catalogs directly available to patrons. This chapter connects the unusual histories of changes in gender dynamics in the library with the changes in technology, focusing not on librarians programming computers in an engineering sense nor using computers in a clerical sense, but rather librarians organizing for increased status and wages within an increasingly high-technology environment while largely ignoring these technological changes, not coming to a sense of their role with in digital library resource management until years later.

It was found in the 1950s that while 92% of all librarians in the US were women, 84% of the directors of the largest academic libraries were men, and by 1962 a special University of Chicago conference on libraries and women concluded that "women depress the status" of librarianship and recommended recruiting more young men into positions of authority and power to correct for this. The early 1970s saw surveys on salary and gender published in the Library Journal and found that men in director positions were paid 30% more than women in the same job, and Anita Schiller revealed in 1974 that the proportion of men directing library schools had risen from 50% in 1950 to 81% in 1970, and the pattern held for library publications as well, only one-third of which were edited by women in 1971. The majority of the pilot projects and proposals for library computer systems took place within the same large academic and corporate sites where men held authority, and the aims of these projects were typically to eliminate the boring or routine work like cataloging and other low-paid clerical jobs.

"Computers would automate away the (feminine) clerical and augment the (masculine) creative work- a root argument in almost every theory of the "new information society" from the 1960s onward."


A 1971 vision of the future includes "a solid-state keyboard and cathode ray tube (CRT) display," with up to four lines of 32 characters.

These two ideas are procedurally tied together, creating new systems of information retrieval depended on cooperation between (female) librarians and (male) outside experts. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, women continued to be recruited to the lowest levels of librarianship and many publications drew analogies between clerical work and housekeeping, serving to further feminize these lower ranks. Many women librarians were aligned with the second wave feminist movement, but few of their efforts at rectifying the discrimination they faced focused on technology, with only a few rare instances of anyone arguing, as Herman Greenberg (Philadelphia library director) did in 1975, that women should apply for education and training in the new field of computer sciences so that when major libraries began to utilize information sciences these women would have the required skills. By the late 1980s the topic of feminism within librarianship was an area of academic research unto itself, but almost no connection to literature on library technology existed.

After 1981, a library using card drawers for its cataloging system was seen as being behind the times, as the catalog serves as the boundary object between librarians and patrons, and has long stood as a concrete example of the state of technological sophistication in the library, yet catalogers were already often feared to be the least capable of library professionals and there were fears that new cataloging systems like OCLC would deskill the occupation. In the early 1980s, university library director Ruth Hafter concluded, while completely omitting any gender analysis, that while the seeds for de-professionalization of the cataloging profession were being sown, it was now also possible for catalogers to peer-review each other's work. It wasn't until 1992 that arguments of technological change and gender were connected by Roma Harris, who argued firstly that the masculine aspects of librarianship such as computing were more highly valued than feminine tasks such as cataloging, and secondly that the female-dominated profession of cataloging was undergoing a de-professionalization process, stating that "librarians must give themselves credit for what they know and put a stop to the process of shunning the female-intensive aspects of their work," and instead "acknowledge that tasks, such as children's librarianship and cataloging, are central to this field and as worthy of status and financial reward (if not more so) as computing expertise."

Yet even this argument contains a contradiction, in that bringing computer technology into librarianship is seen as a masculine project that brings more men into positions of authority in the library, yet the effects are mostly felt by women whose jobs are being computerized and labor being devalued even farther. In other words, when applied to men's labor, computers are "upskilling," but "deskilling" when applied to women. To conclude, this chapter offers four ways that a broader, more gender- and labor-aware history of technology can be used to reinterpret the relationship between social change, technological change, and political-economic change. First, consider all of librarianship as a "technology," not just the computerized parts. Second, consider the object of library technology not as "data" but as "metadata." Third, recognize that it takes human labor to produce, reproduce, and use metadata. Fourth, question gendered meanings around the different moments of metadata labor.

7. Gender and Computing in the Push-Button Library