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Canadian Librarians and the Path to Librarianship
In celebration of Canadian Library month and cultivating the spirit of how a visit to your library will get you thinking, ProQuest took a deep dive into what inspires a person to become a librarian. Download the free coloring page shown here to get you started.
Recent two-part article from Jean Weihs chronicles stories of Canadian women who have pursued careers in library science
What inspires a person to become a librarian? Of course, the motivations for pursuing the path to librarianship are as varied as the people who enter the profession, but they often have one thing in common: passion. This is what makes stories about librarians so compelling, and we can’t get enough of them.
While browsing the ProQuest Central database to spark some ideas for a story celebrating Canadian Library Month, we struck gold in the form of retired librarian Jean Weihs’ column “Why I Became a Librarian: Women” parts 1 (from July/August 2017) and 2 (from September/October 2017), published in Technicalities magazine.
We recently spoke to Weihs and share some highlights from her articles.
A focus on Canadian women in library science
When Weihs was tapped to write a review about Arro Smith’s Capturing Our Stories: An Oral History of Librarianship in Transition, she noticed that of the 35 librarians interviewed for the book – many of them her acquaintances – only one of them was Canadian. “So,” she wrote, “I decided to investigate Canadian librarians’ reasons for choosing this career.”
In a recent interview, Weihs told us “I thought Canadian librarians may offer a different perspective. In the past I have been a visiting professor at University of California Los Angeles and Simmons in Boston. I found a different way of thinking at UCLA (though not so much Simmons) that unexpectedly made me feel like a foreigner – which, of course, I was.”
At the age of 87, and with experience in many important leadership roles in librarianship – both nationally and internationally – Weihs was permitted by the editors of Technicalities to select her own subject matter for the article, she said via email. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore the motivations of Canadian librarians.
“In addition,” she noted in her article, “I wondered whether there was any difference between the sexes.”
For this series of articles, she separated the responses from men and women, with stories focused on men appearing in upcoming issues of the magazine. In separating the responses, Weihs was able to focus on the experiences of women who “became adults when opportunities to enter professions were limited for them to teacher, social worker, nurse and librarians.”
The many paths to librarianship
Weihs, who graduated from the University of Toronto Faculty of Library Science in 1953, counts herself among these women with limited career choices. “In the university where I obtained my undergraduate degree,” she recalled, “there was one woman in engineering, two in medicine, and none in the other ‘masculine’ professions.”
She traces her own pursuit of librarianship to growing up in a Montreal enclave without a library – and the joy of visiting her grandmother in a small Ontario town that had one: “Free books!! What bliss!!” Later, when Weihs had the opportunity to serve as a “helper” to the high school librarian, her fate was sealed. “I knew then I would become a ‘real’ librarian,” she wrote.
A lack of childhood access to public libraries emerges as a theme for many of the librarians Weihs interviewed. Coming from remote rural areas, or homes where books were not otherwise available, first experiences at the library were revelatory for these future librarians. For others, a love of language and organization starting in childhood inspired a passion for categorizing books and information. Some were also influenced by other librarians who expressed enthusiasm for the profession.
The struggles of women in the profession
Weihs describes a time in the early ‘60s when it was assumed that husbands were solely responsible for a family’s finances, so married women would earn less than their single counterparts. For this reason, women working at the Toronto Public Library kept their marital status secret. She shares the story of a woman who wed in her 50s and saw her salary drop down to starting wage, despite still working in the same position with the same responsibilities.
After having a child, Weihs was warned she wouldn’t be able to return to her career until her children were grown. “I was stunned and felt rebellious,” she said, but the decision about going back to work was ultimately made for her. After becoming a widow when her child was a preschooler, it was socially acceptable for her to return to her profession.
For many women, the pursuit of librarianship didn’t begin until they were older. Some of them delayed their careers for their families, or to support their husbands in their work. Others first dabbled in different areas – from nursing to serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force to studying Greek and Roman classical history – and found themselves becoming librarians in their later years.
Another woman told of being forbidden from going to the library as a child because “you never know who has handled those books.” She would eventually handle them herself – the woman and her brother both went on to become librarians – but the woman didn’t go into the profession until she was in her mid-40s and her youngest child was nearly grown.
For further reading by Jean Weihs
Check out future issues of Technicalities for more Weihs on Canadian librarians and librarianship.
“Technicalities will be publishing two more articles on this topic,” Weihs told us, “both of which are devoted to male librarians. I think these two pieces are very interesting because they relate the effect of World War II on decisions to become librarians.”
Evans, G. E., Intner, S. S., & Weihs, J. R. (2010). Introduction to technical services: eighth edition.
Intner, S. S., & Weihs, J. (2014). Standard cataloging for school and public libraries.
Weihs, J., Intner, S. S., & Intner, S. S. (2016). Beginning cataloging.
Weihs, J. (2017). Why I became a librarian: Women part 1. Technicalities, 37(4), 12-14.
Weihs, J. (2017). Capturing our stories: An oral history of librarianship in transition. Technicalities, 37(4), 21-22.
Weihs, J. (2017). Why I became a librarian: Women part 2. Technicalities, 37(5), 11-14.
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