Reproducing the Academy: Librarians and the Question of Service in the Digital Humanities

The following is a version of the talk I gave as part of a panel at ALA sponsored by the Women and Gender Studies Section of ACRL and organized by Heather Tompkins (Carleton College). The title of the panel was “Digital Humanities and Libraries: Power and Privilege, Practice and Theory,” and included Jane Nichols, Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez, and Megan Wacha.

Reproducing the Academy: Librarians and the Question of Service in the Digital Humanities by Roxanne Shirazi

Thank you, Heather, and the Women and Gender Studies Section for inviting me to be here on this panel. I want to start out by noting that the title of the panel is “Digital Humanities and Libraries” – but what I am here to talk about today is actually digital humanities and librarians.

First, I’m going to assume that you all have a basic understanding of the digital humanities, and Jane’s done a fantastic job of explaining the type of work that gets done in this area, so I’m not going to get into the definitional question. I will say that a lot of my talk is based on an understanding that there is a great deal of overlap in the kind of scholarship that digital humanists are doing and activities that are based in the library. My talk will also focus exclusively on U.S. librarianship, though I am interested in learning how this relationship takes shape in other countries.

Now, one of the central questions that comes up whenever we talk about digital humanities and librarianship is the question of service in academic libraries. Some of the literature that touches on this includes work from Trevor Muñoz, Bethany Nowviskie, Miriam Posner, Dot Porter, and Barbara Rockenbach, among others. The question is essentially this: do libraries support DH scholarship or are we producers of it? Is DH just another suite of services to be offered by the library?

Dairy Queen: Now Serving Fish
“finally” by Brittanie Pendleton on Flickr, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

Part of this discussion stems from the fact that there IS such overlap between libraries and the digital humanities, a connection that scholars like Glen Worthey and Chris Alen Sula are laudably exploring.

But—as I said earlier—I’m here to talk about librarians, not libraries.

So, I hope you’ll bear with me as I begin to stitch together some of the threads that have informed my thinking about this, as I attempt to place this question of service in the context of the history of librarianship as a feminized profession. I’ll go over what that term means, and hopefully by the end of it have you questioning the assumptions around terms such as service, scholarship, work, and power.


The term feminization has made the rounds recently as economists and sociologists talk about the shift from the manufacturing economy to a service-sector economy. As jobs move from an industrial—often unionized—factory setting to service provision, we are seeing more low-paid, contingent, part-time positions that may require workers to engage in what has been termed affective labor. Instead of producing a good that is then sold for profit, labor produces satisfied clients and positive brand associations that contribute to a company’s financial value. Thus, feminization can alternately mean an influx of women into the workforce (or a profession) or the ascription of “feminine” characteristics to that work. Discussions of the labor conditions of this “new economy” are frequently centered on the idea that we all do women’s work now.

Ahem. As librarians, we have always been feminized.


What does it mean to be a feminized profession?

It is important here to distinguish between professions and occupations. (N.B. There are varying sociological theories of what makes a profession, and this discussion will necessarily paint broad strokes.) Professions, like law and medicine, are generally considered such because they require specialized knowledge and expertise, which brings along a certain amount of professional autonomy, though it may require accreditation or certification by professional associations. Professions also generally adhere to a code of ethics, so that the practitioner maintains allegiance to a higher calling than personal gain. The question of whether librarianship is a true profession is one that has been debated for some time now, and it is beyond the scope of this talk. I’ll just say that librarianship is often considered a semi-profession by sociologists. Coincidentally or not, the prototypical semi-professions (social work, teaching, nursing) also happen to be feminized professions. More recently, these have been called empowering professions.

The idea of a feminized profession is part of the larger idea of a sexual division of labor, an occupational stratification based on one’s gender presentation. Historians have studied the process through which occupations come to be dominated by women by looking at the histories of social workers, clerical workers, nurses, waitresses, flight attendants and even librarians.

For example, clerical and secretarial work was once dominated by men, as a sort of apprenticeship for the 19th century business world. Many historians attribute the introduction of the typewriter, and its deliberate association with the feminine activity of piano playing (such as in this Scholes and Glidden typewriter ad) as a key factor in the feminization of office work.

In 1979, Dee Garrison’s book Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920 inspired a fair amount of controversy among feminist librarians who felt that the portrayal of the negative aspects of this feminized profession neglected the achievements of individual women in library history. Yet the section called “The Tender Technicians” tells a very similar story to what the other studies of feminized professions and occupations show: that in order to gain entry to the workforce, women must emphasize the work’s feminine qualities (real or imagined) to minimize any perceived social transgression in working outside of the home. When they succeed and begin to make up close to 50% of the workforce, men no longer pursue the work because it is seen as “women’s work.” The work is then de-valued. Put differently:

service => women’s work
∴ women working => service

That is, who is doing the work determines _what _is valued as work.

Emotion Work

See also: affective labor, immaterial labor, digital labor

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the term “emotion work” in her 1983 study of flight attendants, The Managed Heart. Hochschild was interested in the personal costs for workers who were paid to provide “service with a smile” and how it affected their off-duty emotional lives. Emotion work, and the related terms, emotional labor, affective labor and immaterial labor, have resurfaced with the post-manufacturing economy (both feminized and financialized). In the digital sphere, service work takes the form of community facilitators, comment moderators, or social media managers who field the complaints, comments, and harassment that is endemic to online spaces.

Emotion work and, more specifically, affective labor, is often brought into conversation with care work, or domestic labor, but we can associate it with any occupation that has little tangible productivity measures but that requires workers to appear as though they love their job. All of these terms are related to digital labor in the sense that they are immaterial, and, taken together, they convey the many challenges that service work brings for those who must perform it.

Reproductive Labor

Reproductive labor is the domestic work of the home, the labor that reproduces the workforce and therefore contributes to the labor value of the waged worker and indirectly creates financial value for corporations. Some of you here might be familiar with the Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s, led by Marxist feminists like Selma James and Silvia Federici, among others, which called attention to the way that this unwaged labor is exploited in the capitalist system. Federici’s 2004 book, _Caliban and the Witch, _further examines how women’s subjugation and the devaluation of their reproductive labor is part and parcel of capitalism.

A related concept that informs my approach here is Ivan Illich’s idea of shadow labor, which refers to the unpaid work that we do that accompanies our role as wage worker. Activities like grocery shopping, maintaining a vehicle or residence, and housework are all examples of our own uncompensated labor that facilitates our participation in the wage system.

Both of these concepts attempt to articulate the labor of support that should be very familiar to academic librarians. We perform labor that reproduces the academy, from teaching information literacy, research skills and citation formats to students, to selecting, cataloging, and preserving materials for current and future use. This work is vital and it is intellectual labor, but because it does not conform to the publish or perish model at the top of the academic hierarchy, it is reduced to (and devalued as) “service.”

Service v. Scholarship

As librarians, we have always been feminized.

Perhaps what we resent when we discuss service in libraries, as Hochschild discovered in her study of flight attendants, is “the appearance of working at a low level of skills” (Hochschild, 1983, p. 84).

As William Goode explained in his study of the library profession, the domain expertise of academic librarians is often rendered invisible to our academic colleagues:

“The academic expert will usually know much better than the librarian how to find the material in his own field, and he is also likely to evaluate the additional knowledge possessed by the librarian in other areas as somewhat irrelevant or unimportant. The academic expert does not see the basic library skills in action, in part because he rarely has the experience of working with the librarian to find out what help he might obtain.”

The Librarian: From Occupation to Profession” (Goode, 1961)

Which can lead to a lack of respect in the shared space of scholarship:

 “If the library is the laboratory of the humanist, the librarian is all too often the bottle-washer in that lab.”

Reclaiming the American Library Past: Writing the Women In (Hildenbrand, 1996)

And we’re back to our question of service. Do librarians work in service of scholarship or are they servile to scholars? I want to explore further the idea of service in the academy writ large, and connect it to the work that librarians are doing. So I’m going to tell a story about Zotero.

We’re all familiar with Zotero, right? It’s an open-source “research tool”—or as we librarians like to call them, citation managers—developed at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Early last year, Sean Takats, the director of research there, shared publicly some of the comments from his tenure case, which included substantial sections devoted to his digital work. One of the members of the review committee commented:

“Some on the committee questioned to what degree Dr. Takats’ [sic] involvement in these activities constitutes actual research (as opposed to project management). Hence, some determined that projects like Zotero et al., while highly valuable, should be considered as major service activity instead.”

Now, Dr. Takats had crafted his portfolio with a carefully balanced mix of traditional scholarship (his monograph on French history) and his digital work, knowing that he might face pushback despite even having broad guidelines at his university. Still, he was perturbed.

“To recap: Conceive projects? Service. Develop prototype software? Service. Write successful grant proposals? Service. Write code? Service. Lead developers and designers? Service. Disseminate the results of the project? Service.”

Sound familiar? We might ask, as Mark Sample did, “When Does Service Become Scholarship?” We might also ask to what extent Zotero’s resemblance to library work affected the perception of this work as service activity. Regardless, there is a clear need for skilled project managers in DH, and librarians have embraced this role in part because we already have experience with it. But what does that mean for collaborative scholarship between librarians and faculty when project management and other “major service activity” is so clearly secondary to “actual research“?

Jennifer Guiliano, Assistant Director of MITH (the Maryland Institute of Technology in the Humanities), followed Takats’s tale with a blog post explaining that this perception is why she prefers the term Project Developer over Project Manager. She shared her experience in meetings with “people looking for labor to get them to where they want to go; not collaborators who are seeking true partnerships where all members of the team are elevated to be better researchers, teachers, and scholars.” She writes, “They want someone to make their website, schedule their meetings, and write their grant applications; not argue about the meaning, scope, scale, and conclusions that get included in the project.” It is at this point that she’ll remind them that she’s Dr. Guiliano: “I shouldn’t need a degree to be recognized for my thoughts. But let’s be real, it definitely eases the way.”

The Status Shield

Hochschild refers to the “status shield” that marginalized service workers lack in relation to their white, male counterparts engaged in similar work. That is, customers (or clients, users, patrons, and even colleagues) are more likely to unload criticisms and rudeness to women and people of color because they lack the social status that affords respect. Librarians, then—and by this I mean MLS-holding librarians without a PhD—face the dual hurdle of breaking through these gendered assumptions and dealing with the deep credentialism found within the academy. And this is a profession that remains 88% white, remember. It gets worse as we move through the matrix of oppression. So when we call for librarians to approach collaborative digital work as partners and not service providers, I would like to see some acknowledgement of the fact that there are different power relations at play in these collaborative relationships. Power relations that are embedded in the hierarchies that make up academia, in both the social stratification of varying job ranks and the hierarchical classification of service and scholarship. Let’s have a more nuanced conversation about how librarians position ourselves as collaborators in the digital humanities and accede that some of us might need to embrace the label of service—or, perhaps, might not be able to escape it.

Perhaps the problem isn’t service itself, but exploitation.

“In any system, exploitation depends on the actual distribution of many kinds of profits – money, authority, status, honor, well-being. It is not emotional labor itself, therefore, but the underlying system of recompense that raises the question of what the cost of it is.” (my emphasis)

(Hochschild, 1983)

We’re not alone.

While I welcome calls to make visible the intellectual labor of librarians, such as that issued recently by Trevor Munoz at the Data Driven conference, I don’t want to further isolate and denigrate the important yet often intangible support work that needs to be done and is done by librarians. Let’s focus instead on expanding our conception of what work is valued in the academy: “support diversity of work.” Let’s join our colleagues who are struggling with the narrow system of rewards that favors individual research over (collaborative) service work. The same system in which women, people of color, and queer scholars disproportionately shoulder the burden of committee work, community building, and “service work” that reproduces the academy.

“The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work”

“[W]omen associate professors taught an hour more each week than men, mentored an additional two hours a week, and spent nearly five hours more a week on service. This translates to women spending roughly 220 more hours on teaching, mentoring, and service over two semesters than men at that rank.”

Academe (Jan-Feb 2011)

“The invisible abundance of care labor”

“… [I]nstitutions can no longer ignore the invisible abundance of care labor that black, women of color and queer faculty perform on behalf of institutions. That work often takes the form of engaged pedagogy and teaching, diversity initiatives, student recruitment and retention, community engagement and intellectual contributions and financially benefits institutions. These marginalized faculty are often the standard bearers of their institutions’ mission and vision statements.” (my emphasis)

Sekile Nzinga-Johnson, Oct. 15, 2013 interview on The Feminist Wire

Reproducing the academy?

Librarians perform “shadow labor” and it may be considered the reproductive labor of the academy. We need a “status shield” to enable fruitful partnerships that bring mutual respect to collaborative digital work.

We need to talk about working conditions (dedicated research timeand structure (status shield) when we talk about librarians as true collaborators in the production of digital humanities scholarship. We need to talk about the library profession and its “underlying system of recompense”: money, authority, status, honor, and well-being.

Underlying system of recompense: Money, Authority, Status, Honor, Well-Being

Note: A slightly revised version of this post was later published as a chapter in Making Things and Drawing Boundaries, edited by Jentery Sayers (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).


Several people approached me after the panel to inquire about a bibliography or further reading, so although I’ve linked to most of these throughout the text above, I’ve compiled the main sources for my talk below.

On service in libraries & DH

On librarianship

  • Garrison, D. (1979). Apostles of culture: The public librarian and American society, 1876-1920. New York: Free Press.

  • Goode, W. J. (1961). The librarian: From occupation to profession? The Library Quarterly31(4), 306–320. Retrieved from

  • Hildenbrand, S. (1996). Reclaiming the American library past : writing the women in. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Pub.

  • Maack, M. (1997). Toward a new model of the information professions: Embracing empowerment. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 38(4), 283-302. Retrieved from

  • Pritchard, S. (2004). Dee Garrison, Apostles of culture: The public librarian and American society, 1876-1920 [Review]. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 74(4), 477-486. Retrieved from

On feminized professions

  • Barry, K. M. (2007). Femininity in flight: A history of flight attendants. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Cobble, D. S. (1991). Dishing it out: Waitresses and their unions in the twentieth century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

  • Fine, L. M. (1990). The souls of the skyscraper: Female clerical workers in Chicago, 1870-1930. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

  • Melosh, B. (1982). “The physician’s hand”: Work culture and conflict in American nursing. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

  • Strom, S. (1989). “Light manufacturing”: The feminization of American office work, 1900-1930. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 43_(1), 53-71. Retrieved from

  • Walkowitz, D. J. (1990). The making of a feminine professional identity: Social workers in the 1920s. The American Historical Review95(4), 1051–1075. doi:10.2307/2163478

Emotion work & reproductive labor

  • Federici, S., & Power of Women Collective. (1975). Wages against housework. Bristol: Falling Wall Press.

  • Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the witch. New York: Autonomedia.

  • Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Illich, I. (1981). Shadow work. Boston: M. Boyars.

Gender and service in academia

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