SECRET HISTORY KEEPERS BY ALICE WHEATON
Margaret is my mum’s cousin. Which makes her my second aunt. Second cousin? Cousin once removed? Something. She lives alone on a small property on the edge of a small town in the hills just outside of Adelaide. When we arrive (my mum, my uncle, and I) she asks us if we want to see her creek and her turtle. We absolutely do. She takes us to a small wooden bridge that crosses a creek overflowing with recent rainfall. Then she takes us through the house and shows us her “quiet contemplation spot” out the back under some trees she planted herself.
She takes us to the kitchen, talks us through the renovation done by a man who lives down the road with wood from trees that grew in his paddocks, gets us to choose from her extensive tea selection, and then makes us pick our own mugs so she can judge our taste. I pick her favourite. It’s perfect for making banana bread.
Despite a long tradition of being excluded from history, it seems women are often the ones to keep it. This occurs on so many different levels, from keeping a record of personal family history all the way through to taking responsibility for continuing religious and cultural traditions. In many cultures, the role of women as custodians of tradition and history is treated very seriously, even reverently. In her book Keepers of the Culture, Janet Mancini Billson reveals the different terms used by communities she visited to pay respect to this societal role. Ukrainian women are “kinkeepers”, Blood and Iroquois medicine women are “faithkeepers” and the Jamaican women she speaks to call themselves “housekeepers”, not in a domestic sense but meaning literally the keeper of the home (Billson 3). Vastly different cultures spanning much of the globe all wrestle with the same notion, finding names to honour the work women are doing for their communities. Since the end of the nineteenth century, this has occured on an institutional level aswell.
We’re here to find photos of my grandpa, for his funeral, because he had none from before he met my grandma and few from after. Margaret's parents died in 2014 and since then she has taken the role of family historian very seriously. It’s a role passed down from her father. Tony loved family history, loved piecing the evidence together to trace lines back through generations. He once told me we were related to the French royal family and Percy Bysshe Shelley. At least I think it was Percy Bysshe Shelley. I’ve never made an effort to verify that because he’s the only Romantic poet I like and because it means I must be related to Mary Shelley, at least by marriage.
In1883 Melvil Dewey, the man credited with invention of the Dewey Decimal System and so-called father of the modern library, became head librarian at Columbia College (Prescott 5). Soon after, he began plans to open the new School of Library Economy. The college was fiercely opposed to this plan, and to one aspect of it in particular. Dewey intended to allow women to study. Deliberately appealed to them, even (Vann 32). In 1887, Dewey won this standoff and the school opened. Seventeen out of twenty students were women. The college wouldn’t give the school proper classrooms but Dewey and his students carried on anyway, clearing out a storage room in the college chapel across the street from the campus (Prescott 5). The school quickly set the tone for the gender composition of the modern library system and in 2017 women still made up 79% of librarians in the United States (DPE).
Margaret leads us to a table piled high with folders and boxes and stack of paper. She shows us to a box of photos that were all taken around the time of my grandpa’s childhood. Another has his teen and young adult years. Yet another has photos and documents from much earlier, when his father and grandfather and great grandfather worked as surveyors in rural South Australia. But the photos we’re most interested in are the ones of Grandpa’s childhood. Photos
from before his brother died, before his mother died, from before he joined the army. Margaret has put aside a collection of the ones she thinks we’ll like the best. She tried to get a good range, she tells us, of staged and candid. She has found photos of Grandpa as a baby, unrecognisable but for the caption lovingly inscribed on the back. As a child, posing for the camera with his brothers in that half distracted way all children have when asked to stand still too long. A teenager on a bike, a young man sitting on the hood of a car, in his military uniform. My favourite photo is one of him as a toddler, playing with his brothers at the beach. His mother Dorothy Alice, stunning in her 1920’s bathing suit, helps them build a sandcastle with one hand while the other holds a lit cigarette. My uncle is appalled. My mum thrilled. I take a photo and put it on Instagram.
When I first heard this story I was immediately fascinated. Librarian is absolutely a profession I have thought of as feminised without ever really questioning why. It seems like it should be impossible for the percentage of women involved to remain so high more than a century after Dewey opened his school. Unfortunately, though of course not surprisingly, gender inequality exists in the library system much as it does the rest of the workforce. Amongst library technicians, women were earning 80% of what the men in their profession received and were on average two years older (DPE). Female librarians with a master’s degree or higher fared slightly better, at 90% (DPE). Men were twice as likely to be chief librarians than women and those that weren’t tended to earn more than women that were(Schiller 345). This stems from a not too happy history at the School of Library Economy, where Dewey was accused of sexual harassment by numerous students (Blakemore). For decades women such as Adelaide Hasse and Tessa Kelso spoke out about their abuse at his hands, despite the massive power he wielded within the library system and the threat to their livelihoods and professional reputation (Blakemore). In a story as old as time, nothing was ever done about it. I struggled even to find reference to the allegations in the research I did. Feeling disheartened about the experience of women as the keepers of stories and history, I reached out to librarians at the State Library of Victoria.
As well as the photographs, Margaret has an enormous number of photographic slides. Tony’s dedication to family history included taking a lot of photos to preserve details of his family for future generations. Boxes of slides take up most of the small office she leads us into once we’ve combed through all the photos in the kitchen. There’s not much else in the room: a painting of the ocean sits on the floor, leaning against the wall, and there’s a small desk with an ancient Macbook that appears permanently plugged in - like a desktop computer rather than a laptop. Margaret has started the sisyphean task of digitising these slides. She’s done hundreds but there are maybe thousands more to go, she’s not yet halfway. She’s been trying to categorise them. The file marked “Barmera” is the one she opens up. Barmera is the town on the Murray that my mum and her brothers grew up in, on a small property with some fruit orchards and Grandpa’s surgery. I have never been to Barmera. I had never been but immediately I decide that I need to go. I feel like I’ve suddenly gained access to a part of my mum’s life that was previously unknowable to me. I’ve seen photos of my mum at school, when she lived in Japan, when she worked as a nurse. But I’ve only ever heard stories about her life in Barmera. Margaret starts directing all her commentary to me as we flick through photos spanning from the fifties through to the seventies. Mum and my uncle relive old memories and exclaim at their younger selves. I don’t speak but for soft exclamations. I feel overwhelmed.
I got in contact with intern Adelaide Greig, a scholar of medieval literature and recent curator of a World of the Book exhibit on the Arthurian Legend. She has been mentored in this process by librarian Anna Welch and so I spoke to her about her experience of being a woman working in the library system, learning from another woman, indeed, from a whole lineage of women. She told me right off the bat that her experience has been of a pretty even gender divide and that she’s never felt disrespected for being a young woman at the beginning of her career, rather she’s felt supported by the community in her desire to forge a career in the industry. I asked her what it was like being a young woman, learning from another woman in an area traditionally dominated by the presence of women. She immediately spoke to the lack of power that women have had in the field despite their prevalence but she told me “it’s been really exciting progressing as a young woman in a field in which traditionally women do the grunt work and men have the influence, but aiming for the roles which used to be the realm of men”. After my disheartening look into the history of women in the library system, I felt excited by that too.
Adelaide is passionate about the role she can play as a librarian in bringing a voice back to the women like Hasse and Kelso who have been forgotten by history. She says, “It’s a well known phrase that history is written by the victors but I think less considered that this means a lot of day to day lives and cultures were left unrecorded— the lives of powerful men were recorded but less of everyone else. So I’m really dedicated to bringing the history of the rest of society to light”.
Mum tells Margaret there are a couple of photos of Grandpa we’d love to take copies of. Margaret finds us a USB and starts to copy them over, selecting not just the ones of Grandpa but everything from the file marked “Barmera”. “So you can have a proper look through tem”, she says to me. While the files transfer she shows us photos of different floods she’s experienced on the property. In one photo the trees she planted are almost fully submerged. The trees are much bigger now though - they’ll withstand any flood. The files finish transferring and we gather the rest of the photos to take with us. We get back in the car to leave and Margaret tells us to come back anytime if we want to see more of the photos. I promise I will.
Adelaide doesn’t have an answer to how to fix the massive inequalities in the library system. I think that’s probably fair. Neither do I. But she does end on a particularly optimistic note: “As more diversity begins to appear in these fields, which ultimately control our recording of culture, more stories will be discovered and heard. I find the world today is either obsessed with looking forward, or, obsessed with holding on to the bad parts of humanity’s history. I find a lot of pleasure being one small part of a field which is aiming to reflect on the past so we can actually learn as a society and not fall prey to the mistakes of our ancestors”. It’s comforting to think that by taking such an active role in the preservation of culture, women have been slowly but surely ensuring their stories are kept, carried on. Exerting control over a history that has excluded them and gradually leaving more and more of amark.
On the way home I think about Margaret, living on her own surrounded by photos of family members; the living and the dead. She doesn’t have any children. Who is going to keep a record of her history? My mum isn’t a big recorder of history like Margaret but in our attic we do have boxes filled with thousands of photos she has taken. Dad used to moan about how many photos she took of me and my siblings, of him, of their friends. When I moved out of home I took Mum’s old camera with me and I’ve steadily spent more money than I have printing endless rolls of film photographs. When Grandpa died, Mum said I could have his camera. I didn’t even know he’d had one but apparently he’d really enjoyed taking photos of trees. I think, like Mum and Tony, I like taking photos of people more.
- Billson, Janet Mancini. Keepers of the Culture. Lexington Books,
- Blakemore, Erin. “The Father of Modern Libraries Was a Serial Sexual Harasser”. History, Dec 19, 2017,
- Greig, Adelaide. Email interview. 22 Oct
- “Library Workers: Facts & Figures”. Department for Professional Employees, 2018,
- Phenix, Katharine. “The Status of Women Librarians”. Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, 9, no. 2, 1987, pp.36-40.
- Prescott,“Melvil Dewey, the father of modern librarianship, was one strange guy. But his classification system is still used in most of the world”. School Library Journal, 2001.
- Schiller, Anita, R. “The Disadvantaged Majority: Women Employed in Libraries”. American Libraries, vol. 1, no. 4, 1970, pp. 354-349.
- Vann, Saram K. Training For Librarianship Before 1923. American Library Association, 1961.