18 October 2016
The Bodleian Libraries latest display celebrates the work of its first permanent female librarian, Miss Frances Underhill (1883-1973), and the Bodleian's role in employing women in a profession that was dominated by men until the early twentieth century.
Against a timeline of social and political change, including the Suffragette movement and the First World War, this small display looks at the life of Underhill and her contemporaries. It charts their initial fight for employment, the work they undertook at the library, their role during the war as members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (a voluntary organisation providing field nursing) and follows their careers after they left the Bodleian.
Underhill joined the Library's cataloguing department in 1906, and in 1910 Edward Nicholson, Bodley's Librarian, tried to appoint her to the position of Assistant Librarian. Some members of the Bodleian's senior management were opposed to Underhill's appointment, and the display includes a memo from a working group, set up to discuss the potential employment of female librarians, listing objections. These ranged from it not being suitable for women to take a message for senior staff to women not being able to climb ladders in the reading rooms. Visitors to the display can also see Nicholson's response: a letter he sent to the committee rebuking every claim they made against women's suitability to be librarians. In it, Nicholas writes: 'I presume that every woman in England worth her salt who has the chance of climbing an apple tree has climbed it, and would gaily ascent on a ladder to any Bodleian ceiling'.
Anne Lawrence, curator of the display and former Bodleian Libraries staff member said:
'We all know what people think of when they think of a librarian. It involves glasses, cardigans and shushing! However only 100 years ago or so, the thought of a woman working in libraries was not even considered. This display challenges the perceptions held by people then and now, highlighting the Bodleian's role in opening up librarianship as a profession for women, and the barriers these women overcame to do their job, both at the Bodleian and in their employment during the First World War.'
The Women of the Bodleian display features rarely-seen items from the Libraries' collections, including photos and correspondence that highlight the personal stories of female employees at the Bodleian Library, and the role that women continue to play at this historic institution.
The display is open daily in the Proscholium, the main entrance to the Bodleian Library, until 23 October. Admission free.