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Information technology and the de-skilling of librarians; or the erosion of a woman's profession
Computers in Libraries. 12.1 (Jan. 1992): p8.
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Librarianship is a female-intensive profession. By this I mean that, although it is numerically dominated by women, the profession is controlled, to a large extent, by men. This male control is evident in two respects. First, the evolution of the field is, at present, being dictated largely by male-dominated sectors of the economy, particularly by the information industry. Second, within the field itself, men tend to hold a disproportionatley large number of the positions of authority, even though their overall presence in the profession is relatively small (roughly 20 percent in North America).

As well as the dominant presence of men in the management of the large library systems in North America, there is some evidence that relatively more men than women work (and study) in areas of the field in which the primary emphasis is computer technology. Women are over-represented in areas such as children's librarianship and cataloguing (see, for example, Harris, Monk, and Austin, 1986; Harris, Michell, and Cooley, 1985; Harris and Rei, 1988).

Given this pattern, it may be no coincidence that it is in just these are-as that U.S. libraries are currently having the greatest difficulty recruiting trained employees (Heim, 1988). At one time, bright women had relatively few options available to them if they chose to pursue careers.

Today, however, librarianship is in competition with dozens of other attractive occupations, many of which offer the promise of greater salaries and more prestige. And, within the field itself, relative to are-as such as cataloguing or children's work, the so-called "male specialties" are generally accorded higher status (Harris, Monk, and Austin, 1986).


With the prominent and ever-changing role of automated systems in librarianship, the overall patterns of library work are changing dramatically and are having a significant impact on the role of women in the field. Indeed, it appears that some of the female areas of specialization, especially cataloguing, are undergoing a process of "deprofessionalization" or "de-skilling."

That the de-skilling trend has been especially damaging to women in this profession has seldom been addressed directly in the library literature. Vagianos and Lesser (1988) did warn that women may be especially vulnerable to technological displacement in the information sector.

Similarly chilling, especially for library workers who are employed at the clerical and paraprofessional levels, are Webster and Robbins' (1986) observations that "because women disproportionately work in low-skilled, most often white-collar occupations where they deal routinely with information...their labor has every likelihood of being automated" (p.163). Comments such as these, however, are rare in the vast array of published material on the impact of the new technologies on library and information work.

In a discussion of the future of libraries, Vagianos and Lesser (1988) described two types of information workers: "knowledge workers" who create information and "data workers" who use or process information. Data workers, the larger of the two groups, carry out a variety of jobs including" "all of the lowest skill, routine, clerical type jobs" (p.36). According to these authors,

[W]omen are proportionately better represented in the data worker versus knowledge worker sector and thus may continue to be subject to the traditional, nontechnological barriers to advancement characteristic of their labor market position up to now. Moreover, women may be more likely to be negatively influenced by technological displacement of workers (p.36).

The displacement and the deskilling of certain aspects of information work has profound implications for librarians. In fact, Kraft (1987) reported that unlike all other occupational groups in the information sector, the number of library workers in the United States actually decreased during the mid-1980s, a decline which, according to Kraft "may be computer related" (p.131).


Sociologist Nina Toren (1975) described a variety of ways by which a profession may go into decline and lose its status. These include loss of "exclusive mastery" over a knowledge base, declining importance of a profession's services, loss of the service ideal, and failure to retain a "legal monopoly over admission, training, licensing, and judgement of performance" (p.326).

With the increased use of automated systems in many professions, much of the work in these fields is becoming routinized. And, as Toren explained, "one of the strongest foundations on which professions base their claim to autonomy and monopoly is the dictum that professional work is nonroutine" (p.329). What is increasingly happening in the professions, however, is that

[T]he process of specialization, standardization, and routinization of problems and their solutions make professional work less complicated and uncertain, and more precise, efficient, reliable, and fair. It also allows for the delegation of routine activities to less qualified personnel leaving the complex and difficult problems to the trained professional. Sometimes, however, not much is left to warrant a distinct professional status and its correlates (p.330).

The other threat to professionalism, according to Toren, is related to the service ideal.

The professional-client relationship has been traditionally governed by the former's claim to autonomy (freedom from lay control), and authority (the client's duty to obey), by virtue of his superior knowledge and dedication to service the client's best interests....Standardization and routinization make professional activities more comprehensible to outsiders, and consequently subject to their evaluation and control (p.332).

Thus, she argued, "the two fundamental sources of deprofessionalization arise from the core characteristics of a profession -- its knowledge base and the service ideal" (p.332).

Thus, she argued, "the two fundamental sources of deprofessionalization arise from the core characteristics of a profession -- its knowledge base and the service ideal" (p.335).

The Deprofessionalizing of


The routinizing of library work through automation has had a major impact on the activities of cataloguing librarians, who at one time performed what many would consider to be the core function of the profession.

The changing nature of the cataloguer's work illustrates Toren's idea that deprofessionalization can occur when a field loses control over its knowledge base.

In the case of cataloguers, this loss of control has come about largely because of the widespread use of cataloguing networks or bibliographic utilities, i.e., services that provide libraries with access to online databases containing millions of cataloguing records. Through such services, libraries need no longer do original cataloguing on site for most materials. Instead, they can simply purchase the cataloguing records they need, already prepared.

In a study of the role of cataloguers in academic libraries, Hafter (1986) found that since the introduction of network cataloguing, some 80 to 98 percent of cataloguing is now processed from network copy by library assistants. This led her to conclude that "most network documentation and the activities resulting from that documentation are based on a clerical, not a professional, knowledge base" (p.74).

The use of cataloguing networks not only shifts most of the in-house cataloguing work in libraries to nonprofessional staff, but it also alters the working patterns of the remaining professional cataloguers. According to Hafter (1986),

[I]n the past, cataloguers usually specialized in subject or language areas, reviewed all the materials acquired in those areas and cataloged both the "hot" items (to get them in circulation quickly) and the difficult ones....Now ... the cataloger has to work in several subject areas because there are not enough items that require original cataloguing in most disciplines to warrant subject-specialization. Therefore, the professional loses mastery over the literature in a given area. This loss of control and knowledge slows the cataloger. Thus, the cataloguers have to exert extra effort just to maintain their previous production statistics. Working on the material now left in the backlog also requires increased psychological effort. It is sometimes of very limited local interest (p.72).

With the reduction in the need for original cataloguing, Hafter found that there was an overall decline in the size of the cataloguing departments in the libraries in her sample.

In general, fewer professional cataloguers were employed....Even in those departments that suffered little or no attrition in the number of professional positions, it was clear that the role and career expectations of the cataloger had greatly diminished (p.63).

There is mixed evidence at present as to whether this trend has been continuing. While some authors point to the difficulties in recruiting and retaining cataloguers in the United States (see, for example, Bishoff, 1989; Neal, 1989), a senior manager in a large Canadian public library system told me recently that no cataloguers had been hired in her system for more than eight years.

Even those who argue that the need for professional cataloguers is as critical now as it has even been agree that the nature of these jobs has changed. Bishoff (1989), for example, noted that cataloguers are needed "to fill their traditional role of original cataloguing, department management and staff training, as well as new responsibilities in system administration, design and system analysis" (p.42).

Similarly Neal (1989), who claimed that "libraries are increasingly facing unprecedented difficulties in recruiting and retaining professional cataloguers," acknowledged that many of these positions involve "a significant non-cataloguing component" (p.113).

The major force behind the reduction in the numbers of professional cataloguers in libraries is an economic one. As Hafter put it,

[T]he need to control finances and to provide new services (many of them computer and/or network based) forces administrators to consider ways to reallocate resources. Cataloguing is an expensive, labor-intensive activity which many administrators feel can no longer be justified (p.55).

This reallocation of resources moves the control over technical services work away from cataloguers and toward administrators and systems analysts. At one time, senior cataloguers

determined workflow and set production quotas, goals, and standards, working in consultation with other cataloguers and other members of the library administration. In the automated system, network computer availability affected scheduling while system analysts and non-cataloguing administrators began to exert more influence over setting production standards (p.64).

Thus, as Estabrook (1983) explained the "substitution of computerized for manual systems provides increased opportunities for managerial control over the pace and nature of work" (p.74). Of course, this phenomenon is not only evident in librarianship. Rather, it has been observed in a variety of work settings ranging from the preparation of hamburgers in fast food restaurants to the output of secretaries and stock brokers (Garson, 1988).

Hildenbrand (1989) argued that what she termed "the crisis in cataloguing" is related to "the identification of cataloguing as 'women's work within librarianship" (p.217). While she acknowledged that there are inadequate data to determine positively that women are over-represented in professional cataloguing, she did cite some evidence which suggests that cataloguers trail other types of librarians in status and salary.

In fact, as more and more of the cataloguing work in libraries becomes clerical, it does, indeed, increasingly become women's work. Given this pattern, it is important to note that those who work as administrators and systems analysts, specialties in the field in which men are over-represented, set the standards as well as control and monitor the work that is undertaken largely by women.

As is typical of women's work generally, cataloguing has been ignored and undervalued (except by other cataloguers, of course) at the expense of libraries and their users. The short-sightedness of this view has laready had a negative impact on the field. The failure to use cataloguers in the design of some information retrieval systems has led to inconsistency, redundancy, and missing information in some databases. As Whittaker (1988) put it,

[Y]ou can have an outstanding collection, marvelous reference librarians, and a top-of-the-line circulation system, but if you don't have the vital link of bibliographic control (unless your collection numbers only a couple of hundred titles), there is no way to get the appropriate items into the hands of the interested patron. Cataloguers and the records they create provide that link (p.12).

Are the difficulties that have faced cataloguers likely to be encountered by other types of librarians?

There is some indication that deskilling is also taking place in reference services. Increasingly, library systems are relying on nonprofessional staff to perform a variety of reference functions. Again, this is partly motivated by economics. Clearly, it costs more to pay a professional to staff the reference desk than it does to pay a nonprofessional. However, automation is also affecting the reference role in librarianship.

Online searching is an aspect of reference librarianship that came into prominence during the 1970s. In the traditional model of online searching, a library patron consulted with a librarian. Thus, "the online interview was, of necessity, centered on the intermediary, who was able to serve only a single user at a time" (Janke and Nicholls, in press, p.1). Within this arrangement, Janke and Nicholls noted, the "users never really learn how to use the service. Only intermediaries search. Even when the system is visible onscreen to users, it remains inaccessible to them" (p.2).

While in the short run this form of online searching may have enhanced the status of reference librarians, as it cast them in the role of the expert vis-a-vis the patron, the technology may lead, eventually, to a situation reminiscent of the reshaping of the cataloguing department.

With the increasing use of technologies that enable people to conduct their own database searches ("end-user searching"), the role of the specialized online search librarian appears to be decreasing in significance. In Janke and Nicholls' opinion, the traditional model of online searching will become less and less important as end-users initiate their own contact with the databases in which they are interested. In fact, they noted that with the introduction of CD-ROM systems, "passive user reliance on librarians, as expert intermediaries who are in control of the search process, is already on the wane in the reference environment of most large academic libraries" (p.12).

Does the loss of the intermediary role in online searching and the staffing of general reference desks with nonprofessional staff signal the deprofessionalizing of the reference function? Not everyone thinks so. Not surprisingly, those who are strong advocates of the new information technologies see these changes as opportunities rather than losses.

Janke and Nicholls, for instance, predicted that those who were once busy with online searching will now "adopt a more informal advisory role as counselor, reference librarian, instructor and orientation librarian" (p.9) in which they will "inevitably taken on far greater responsibilities ... than they ever conceivably could within the limitations of the traditional model" (p.10).

Hall (1984) also argued that although the knowledge base of librarianship is being structed and routinized as a result of automation, "it does not follow that the practice is being deprofessionalized" (p.26). Instead, she suggested that even though

the older type of librarian is being de-skilled, other library skills are being developed or are being replaced by the high level skills of another profession. The reference or special librarian is now very highly skilled as are those devising computer systems (p.24).

Hall (1984) and Allen (1984) also made optimistic predictions about the future of librarianship. As the field absorbs the impact of automation, Allen expects it to be the "catalyst that finally enables librarians to concentrate on the truly intellectual aspects of library operations and management" (p.11).

The New Librarianship

Even those who are most optimistic about the new technologies acknowledge that in their vision of the future the direct service role formerly played by reference librarians will be deprofessionalized as nonprofessional staff asume primary responsibility for most patron contact. As Hall (1984) described it, users will become an "abstraction" for the professional librarians (and others) who design and manage information systems.

For Hall then, the "new librarianship" is a field that responds to "a need that has been abstracted out of its original and particular context and is generalized to a sizeable user group" (p.23). However, what she described is not really a new librarianship, but basically a new occupation.

What will this occupation look like? Many futurists agree that the most significant roles remaining to librarians in the face of automation will be teaching and consulting. For instance, Veaner (1985) predicted that no matter what it is called in the future, there will still be an infrastructure that will "need librarians as intermediaries, teachers, consultants, advisers, and interpreters" (p.228). Similarly, Bearman (1987) observed that the new technologies will inevitably lead to increased teaching and consulting roles and noted that,

[E]ven with improved front end packages and enhanced expert systems, the proliferation of databases and the rapidly changing technologies will require the help of information professionals to keep up with services, provide expert access to them, and serve as a member of the organization's management planning team knowledgeable about information assets (p.84).

All this leads one to wonder, of course, whether limiting the roles of professional librarians to those of consulting and teaching users about the new technologies will not eventually result in the demise of the occupation, since both functions are inherently short-term in nature.

As both software and its end-users become more and more sophisticated, the need for expert intermediaries will, presumably, shrink, or at least appear to be less necessary as end-users become more convinced of the quality of their systems.

New Labels for Library Work

The changes which have been predicted in librarianship are not limited to function but extend, as well, to the actual labels given to the work

Accordingly to Bearman, "we can expect many companies and organizations in the next decade to include information assets in their strategic planning and to have a senior vice president for Information Resources Management" (p.85).

Similarly, Rowe (1987) predicted that in both universities and corporations a new role will emerge for the "chief information officer" who will be "in charge of data-processing centers, records managements, archives, and communications" (p.297) as well as libraries.

However, even though "nobody knows more about making databases accessible and about interaction between users that librarians" (p.297), Rowe argued that they "do not have much of an edge in qualifying for that CIO role" (p.297.)

To illustrate Rowe's point, one need only consider what is happening with attempts to amalgamate university computing centers and campus library systems. Many have argued that with the increasing overlap in the activities of university libraries and computng centers, it make sense to merge them into single units.

However, as Cimbala (1987) pointed out, one of the impediments to such mergers is that few computing center staff members (the majority of whom are men), would want to be labelled librarians. Given this reluctance, therefore, it is probably not surprising that in the recent merger between the Stanford University Libraries and the university's Office of Information Services, it was an engineer rather than the chief librarian who was placed in charge as "vice president for libraries and information resources" (American Libraries, 1990, p.830).

Furthermore, even if librarians were to be successful in capturing some of these prize positions, it is important to remember that they represent only a fraction of the job market. After all, there can be only one senior vice president for information and one chief information officer in any organization. What jobs will remain to the librarians who do not compete successfully for these lucrative positions is perhaps more important to this discussion.

Parson (1984) described what he called "a new paradigm for librarian-ship" and suggested that librarians should

shift away from their strict identification with the library as an agency or institution to an identification with the client or library user. Such a shift will enhance the effectiveness of the librarian as an information advocate or information-interpreting agent (p.372).

In a similar vein, Horton (1982) described the need for what he called an "information counselor" whose function would be to help the user interact with information suppliers and handlers. He distinguished this new role from those already performed by librarians by claiming that "traditionally, the librarian's role has been to assist rather than to do" (p.17).

Whether or not one accepts arguments like thse, it is clear that the pressures on librarians to rid themselves of their occupational labels are intense. It seems clear, then, that automation will result in an even further decline in the status of librarianship as more and more of its formerly professional tasks are performed by paraprofessionals and clerical workers, while at the same time, the few remaining high-status activities in the field are renamed by former librarians who wish to escape their occupational heritage.

The Commodification of


When considering the de-skilling of information work, there is one other significant factor which must be taken into account: the commodification of information.

It is clear that in the United States information work is rapidly becoming privatized and is increasingly undertaken for exchange on the market. A decade ago, Estabrook (1981) observed that

[I]t does not necessarily follow ... that as information becomes more important, those organizations and professionals traditionally involved in the dissemination of information (for example, libraries and libraries) will assume a more important role (p.1377).

In fact, she predicted that "as information becomes more important, the owners of capital will appropriate the information utilities more directly for their purposes" (p.1377).

Time has proven her right. "While information work is a major responsibility of the public sector, the bulk of such work is done in the private sector, and the proportion done privately is increasing" (Kraft, 1987, p.185). Furthermore, not only is the "work of distributing knowledge" not growing, but in the case of library workers, it is actually shrinking.

What is growing, however, is the number of private information services, i.e., "those professionals who provide information relevant to the needs of individuals or firms" for profit (Kraft, p.191).

For instance, O'Leary (1987) noted that "the number of people with backgrounds as librarians or online searchers who are practicing independently has multiplied ten or twentyfold over the past fifteen years" (p.24). These individuals normally work as information brokers who offer "a for-profit version of traditional library reference service" or as information consultants "who tell you what to do with information and how to do it" (O'Leary, p.25).

Historically, the role of North American librarians has been to ensure the free and equitable distribution of information to all who wish it. However, this principle is being severely undermined by those who seek to privatize information, even that which is produced and compiled at the public's expense.

Indeed, Herbert Schiller (1989) has suggested that the ultimate goal of the private information industry is to bypass libraries altogether in a scenario in which "information provision ... would be in the hands of private 'information professionals' or directly available to individual end-users, ... at a price" (p.81).

According to Schiller, there are already some "bottom-line educators" who are "wondering whether there is a need for traditional library schools. Who needs librarians, educated according to a social ethic, if information can be supplied by entrepreneurs and private businesses unencumbered by social principles?" (p.81).

What is the Future of


Clearly, the introduction of automated systems in libraries has had, and will continue to have, an enormous impact on the composition and distribution of labor in the library work force.

Not only is it resulting in the deprofessionalizing of the core functions of librarianship, as well as in the import of outside experts into key positions in the field, but it is also leading to a serious confrontation between libraries and that growing portion of the private sector concerned with the sale of information.

Despite the optimistic forecasts of high technology enthusiasts, it seems inevitable that the professional library work force will shrink and that the jobs remaining to librarians will be of a very different nature than those of the past. Many of the service roles played by librarians in the past will, in future, be taken over by para-professionals and clerical workers.

This will leave the librarians to perform administrative and systems functions, both of which, coincidentally, are the highest status (and male-dominated) subfields within the profession. Paradoxically, however, it is these very subfields that are most threatened by the important of external expertise.

Librarians are apparently not seen to be capable of grasping technological complexities nor are they perceived to be up to the job of managing the organization, whether it be in the form of a traditional library or an amalgam of "information services."

It appears then, that librarianship is in the process of developing into a male field insofar as what is being emphasized, preserved, and valued in this occupation are those aspects which are administrative and technical, and removed from direct contact with patrons.

The irony in this is that, according to Tore (1975), the loss of the service ideal and loss of control over a knowledge base through the routinizing of professional functions, will lead to deprofessionalization. In other words, the changes underway in librarianship are likely to lead to its demise as a profession.

As this scenario unfolds what will happen to professional librarians, of whom the vast majority are women? Will the new information industry offer them an attractice alternative to employment in libraries? Perhaps. In the United States there has been a considerable increase in the number of women who have attained management positions in information work.

However, according to Kraft (1987), "much of the increase of women in management does not represent real access to control for women" (p.201). Instead, the planning and control functions in the information field continue to be the purview of men. As Carter and Carter (1981) observed in an article entitled, "Women's Recent Progress in the Professions or, Women Get a Ticket to Ride After the Gravy Train has Left the Station,"

there is a rapidly developing split in professional work between prestige jobs with good pay, autonomy, and opportunities for growth and development and a new class of more routinized, poorly paid jobs with little autonomy and which are unconnected by promotion ladders to prestige jobs in the professions ... it is precisely in the newer, more routinized sector of profession employment that women's employment will be overwhelmingly concentrated. The upper tier of relatively autonomous work will continue to be male dominated with only token increases in female employment. Thus women's entry into the professions should be seen as something of a hollow victory: women will make gains, but the "professional" jobs they enter will be such in name only (p.478).

One of the ironies for librarians in all of this is that there is now starting to be some recognition that in routinizing or deprofessionalizing the core functions of librarianship, the quality of the work being done in the field has been compromised.

To cite just one example, it appears that a few people (other than catalogers themselves) are beginning to recognize that bibliographic control is threatened when databases are constructed and managed without input from cataloguing experts.

It seems, then, that the traditional (i.e., female) skills of the profession may be valued once again. Unfortunately, their value is seen only in the face of a crisis. The question this raises, of course, is whether it is too late to save these aspects of librarianship or whether the pressures which result in de-skilling will eliminate the profession entirely.


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This article is based on Roma Harris's forthcoming book Librarinship: The Erosion of a Woman's Profession, to be released by the Ablex Publishing Corporation. A version of this paper was presented at Computers in Libraries Canada '91.

Harris is an associate professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Harris, Roma. "Information technology and the de-skilling of librarians; or the erosion of a woman's profession." Computers in Libraries, Jan. 1992, p. 8+. Expanded Academic ASAP, Accessed 27 June 2017.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A11815348