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Erica Vinson on Preserving Women’s History in American Libraries
23 November, 2023
Abigail Van Slyck’s exploration of the library interior is a compelling description of the importance of women and women’s labour on the architectural interior and the structural barriers that continue to keep women’s narratives out of history. In On the Inside: Preserving Women’s History in American Libraries, Van Slyck advocates for preserving the interior and exterior of historic libraries. The historical library, devoid of its original interior, is also devoid of the complex story or women’s library work. As Van Slyck points out, the preservation of the architectural interior often conflicts with contemporary means of preservation. Strategies that keep historic buildings in use often involve the complete transformation of the interior. It is interesting that the work of the male architects, wrapped up in the exterior, can be preserved with little enough impact on the contemporary moment, while the work of the female librarian is too intrusive to exist without being explicitly historical. Van Slyck suggests that the charging desk, a central element of women’s library work, could be reimagined within the interior as a compact exhibition, a way to visualise the labour of female librarians and give visitors insight into the experience of the historical library. Even if a historic library took on a new use, this would be a relatively compact way to maintain an essential element of the library’s interior. Still, Van Slyck’s suggestion remains framed as an exhibition, something inherently more unstable than a building. Van Slyck ends the chapter by reiterating the importance of rethinking the practice of historic preservation, pointing back to the ease with which traditional preservation projects erase women. Thinking again about the difference between the simultaneous impermanence and loudness of a proposed charging desk exhibition, with the permanence and the almost invisible inevitability of preserved exteriors, it becomes clear that the struggle to maintain women in the historical record is a struggle to reimagine how we understand feminized labour completely. As Van Slyck points out, preserving the interior is part of a project to remember not just historical design but a more complete, even experiential picture of the past. Again, this highlights the need for a reimagining of what history means. It is not only about not erasing women’s labour but creating a version of history that understands the issues specific to women’s labour and experience as critical elements of the historical record.