Monday, February 20, 2006

Article Note: On Victorian Reading Rooms for Ladies

Citation for the article:

Baggs, Chris. "'In the Separate Room for Ladies Are Provided Those Publications Specially Interesting to Them': Ladies' Reading Rooms and British Public Libraries 1850-1914." Victorian Periodicals Review 38.3 (2005): 280-306.

I read the article via Project Muse.

This is an interesting little article of library history. The author states that "this article will examine how some Victorian and Edwardian public libraries targeted one specific group, female readers, making serials available to them via dedicated reading rooms" (280). I found it interesting to learn about these separate rooms, and I found even more interesting the assumptions that went along with creating such rooms. This was mostly a British phenomenon. The U.S. did not have these.
  • "Reading rooms were warm, dry and free at the point of use, and, whereas an individual had to be a registered member of the library to borrow books, everyone had unrestricted access to the reading rooms, leading to substantial usage" (281). This is something that survives to this day. Here in the U.S., a person can walk into pretty much any public library and read anything there, periodicals included, free of charge. Folks likely need a library card to check out items, but the reading on location is free. What has changed is the presence of the Internet. Sure, libraries can provide free access, but there have to be some restrictions in place, likely due to security issues and a limited number of resources. I mention the Internet because much of the serials reading now happens online from blogs to magazines to news to periodical indexes with full-text capabilities. This may be like the Victorians reading their serials, but it certainly not unrestricted access. These days, I would venture to say that given the issues, such restrictions are not bad but rather fairly reasonable.
  • The separate reading rooms "consisted of a specially designated ladies' reading room, giving women their own physical space in which to read the newspapers, journals, and magazines provided for them" (282). More on the rooms' content later. At this point, the author observes that these rooms were usually more lavish so as to meet the needs of the "fairer sex."
  • And why were these rooms needed? For one, "partly so that women readers would not be exposed to the less than salubrious atmosphere of the general newsroom and/or reading room" (283). It makes a reader like me wonder what exactly were they doing in the main reading room. Here's one answer: "This was where the library's undesirables, their 'loungers and loafers,' were likely to congregate" (283). Again, I think about today when we would label some of those folk as problem patrons or with a few other choice labels. And no, I am not going into the debate of a library as a social service agency. I believe in common sense: a patron disrupts the library and the other patrons or workers, and he or she should be escorted out of the facility. Pure and simple. However, the rationale back then gets better, for "it was felt that the library's female readership should be spared the unpleasantness of mixing with them, presumably implying that women were unlikely to be 'loungers and loafers' themselves" (283). Apparently it was fine for the guys to mix in with the unpleasantries; heck, guys were probably unpleasant more often than not. How things have changed given that a "lounger or loafer" can be of either gender.
  • More reason to have separate rooms for the ladies, and this one was my personal favorite. "Some librarians even felt that certain behaviour exhibited by women in public libraries necessitated a separate area, where they could gossip without disturbing the more serious reader and also be more effectively controlled" (283). I think this speaks for itself.
  • It is necessary to note that most public libraries back then were run by men. This "means that the stock in ladies' reading rooms was normally chosen by male chief librarians and represented what they thought their female readership either wanted or should have" (284).
The author used primary sources such as library annual reports to compile item lists. He explains his method, which he admits is not perfect, but then again, the sources are not perfect. Records on the topic were not always widely available, or often details about ladies's reading rooms were merged with the records of the main rooms. However, Bagg was able to draw various conclusions.

Another interesting detail for me was the role of donations. In essence, the ladies' reading rooms often got "hand me downs" of serials donated by the public. However, donations overall were very important to public libraries in this period, constituting "between 40% and 50% of public library periodical collections" (287). Can you imagine if public libraries today had to depend on public donations to provide up to 50% of their periodicals? Yet, back then, this was normal.

So, what types of serials were found in the ladies's rooms? Pretty much what one would expect given how women were viewed at the time including fashion, temperance publications, and home-oriented items. "What was almost universally missing from ladies' reading rooms are the heavyweight review journals and the more serious literary social and cultural magazines. . ." (290).

Over time, the value of these rooms declined, and libraries gradually closed them down. The reasons were various, but one reason that stood out was the desire of some libraries to provide children's facilities. The rising social emancipation of women also helped to close the rooms down. The process of closing these rooms was mostly gradual. The author concludes that more research is needed and that these rooms, at least for a time, allowed for more women to use libraries. Baggs writes, "it may prove the case that the provision of a ladies' room regularly extended choice by increasing the number of ladies' journals available to them, including donated titles and other types which otherwise were unlikely to have been bought by the library's clientele" (297). So it was not a perfect system, and yet for a brief time, it may have done some good. The article as a whole provides a look at a part of library history and a glimpse into the Victorian Era. It includes various appendices of periodical lists and an extensive set of references.

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