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journal article / culture

Being a Victorian Librarian Was Oh-So-Dangerous

In the late 19th century, more women were becoming librarians. Experts predicted they would suffer ill health and breakdowns.
Quick, think of a job that’s hard on your health. Librarian Rosalee McReynolds writes that in the late nineteenth century, a common response might have been: librarian.

As the nation urbanized in the second half of the century, McReynolds writes, upper- and middle-class men increasingly moved to commercial work. Their wives, meanwhile, remained in households that were becoming sites of consumption rather than production. Ready-made goods, and servants, turned female idleness into a status symbol. “Ironically, while a man was judged positively for hard work, he gained further status in accordance with the leisure enjoyed by his womenfolk,” McReynolds writes.

In this context, even physical inability to work—due to nervous disorders or amorphous female complaints—became glamorous. As McReynolds puts it: “Nerves became synonymous with the pampered woman and the popular image of her became that of the exhausted beauty prostrate on her chaise longue.”

But even among the privileged classes, not all women had the option to stay idle. By 1860, demographic shifts had created a serious gender imbalance in the population of the northeast, particularly in urban areas. That meant some women didn’t get married, and many among that group didn’t have family money to last them a lifetime.

For many women in this situation, becoming a librarian seemed like an obvious choice. Library administrators were enthusiastic about the cheap, educated workforce they could find among graduates of women’s colleges, and it was a ladylike form of paid employment involving little physical strain. Yet, to many Victorians, it still seemed to be too much for delicate women. As women were increasingly entering the profession in 1886, Melvil Dewey, of Dewey Decimal System fame, predicted that female librarians would have trouble doing the job because of poor health.
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