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Abigail MacKenzie on Preserving Women’s History in American Libraries
5 November, 2023
Abigail Van Slyck examines the gendered implications of “the tendency to sacrifice the historic interior” in the name of “emphasizing the integrity of the architectural shell” through the preservation of historic early 20th century American libraries. The text examines how these preservation projects facilitate the erasure of traces of women’s labour in library spaces. Van Slyck begins by contrasting the perceived value of exterior versus interior space in preservation projects, personifying the exterior shell as masculine, as the setting of male activities, construction, carpentry, masonry, and civic life. Conversely, she offers the early 20th century library interior space as feminine, hosting a history of 78.5 percent female labour. Yet Van Slyck does not simply celebrate the interior of the library as feminist success but rather traces the burdens and pressures on early 20th century library workers through architectural evidence and planning. In doing so, Van Slyck argues on behalf of the preservation of the interior as moments of learning and unlearning the gendered nuance of labour expectations.
The library charging desk is presented as symbolic of gendered expectations within the library setting, notably comparing the desk to a fortress. Originally intended to maximize book handling efficiency and dissolve the barrier between readers and the stacks, the charging desk became a space of scrutiny and surveillance toward the women library workers posted there. The desk itself reinforced gendered expectations for women workers: remain calm, receive books, file reports, direct patrons, answer telephones, all while placed on display in the central core of the library. Nevertheless, Van Slyck does not side with the removal of the charging desk in modern library preservation projects in her criticism of it but rather defends their presence as a piece of important feminist history. She suggests the opportunity for inverting the users’ perception, to get a view into the life of a women working at the charging desk and ultimately highlight the overlooked scope of work and vulnerability prescribed in the spatial planning.
Van Slyck’s exploration of women’s interaction in the public arena such as a library space offers an opportunity to rethink architectural preservation and the hidden stories told by buildings. “If we venerate architectural containers that were the products of male building skill, we also need to value the material evidence of women’s activities outside the domestic sphere”.