How to Celebrate Women’s History @ Your Library

Telling the story of women’s work is never done.

November 6, 2012


“Writing Women Back into History” is the theme for National Women’s History Month, March 2010, the annual celebration of women in the United States. For years women’s contributions were routinely underestimated or ignored even in the history of our own profession. While this still remains the case for much of history, the second wave of feminism reinvigorated interest in, and work on, “women’s history” at the academic and community levels. Now children learn about Sojourner Truth as well as Betsy Ross and we understand that Abigail Adams contributed to the founding of this country as did her husband, John, our nation’s second president.

National Women’s History Month (NWHM), whose origins are a complex story in itself, offers libraries a familiar framework for programming and for updating your website, displays, and exhibits. You can take an approach similar to Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month, and other heritage-themed celebrations relevant to your community. Many types of libraries join in the celebration, even if only at the most basic level of a book display. However, focusing on women’s history and women as a library market segment offers so many more creative opportunities for reaching out to your community, whether that community consists of students and faculty, corporate executives, homemakers, scientists, secretaries, or others.

This article focuses on celebrations that take place in public libraries, since the greatest variety of women’s history programming in libraries takes place there. Here is what four public libraries of varying sizes reported in response to our recent information request to the PubLib and Feminist discussion lists:

  • For several years the East Baton Rouge (La.) Parish Library has joined in its city’s Women’s Week program, sponsored by the Women’s Council of Greater Baton Rouge. The library offers genealogy classes, consumer health information classes targeting women’s health, and classes on library resources of interest to women. In 2009, the library made available Wii games targeted at senior women. At other times during the year EBRPL offers programs for professional women and caregivers.
  • In 2001 Fort Worth (Tex.) Library spearheaded the creation of Hattitude . . . Hats Off to Women, a monthlong citywide celebration of women that continues today with the cooperation of several city organizations. In 2009 the groups cosponsored six events including a hat fashion show, a girls’ poetry jam, a leadership conference, and two award events honoring area women and organizations. The library has also established an archive documenting women’s contributions to Fort Worth and Tarrant County.
  • The 21-branch Ocean County (N.J.) Library sponsors a range of programs each year. The 2009 selection included: women’s history quizzes; jazz and blues programs focusing on women; programs on New Jersey women; film screenings; scrapbooking to honor extraordinary women in one’s life; a scavenger hunt; programs on beauty, health, women authors, and the history of women’s underwear; and a one-woman show about three modern first ladies.
  • The Twelve Bridges Library in Lincoln, California, celebrated Women’s History Month with an array of special events: for children, “Celebrating Great Women” featured five costumed volunteers speaking in the first person as Abigail Adams, Indira Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Julia Morgan, and Sally Ride; a program highlighting International Women’s Day offered speakers from a variety of international groups including CROP (Comparative Research Programme on Poverty), Heifer International, WIPA (Women for International Peace and Arbitration), and the Tahirih Justice Center; and there was a screening of Ken Burns and Paul Burns’ film Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

For additional programming ideas and resource materials, see “(At Least) 21 Ideas for Celebrating Women’s History Month” and “To Help You Plan.”

Historical collaborations

Partnerships are an effective way to develop programs for National Women’s History Month and develop long-term relationships with other local groups and individuals who don’t use the library. Partnerships are a way of acknowledging the good work of other community members and bringing the library to the attention of others. If the library reaches out to other groups, those groups will in turn reach out to the library.

Women’s organizations—including those affiliated with religious groups, sororities, sports teams, and self-help and educational groups—remain a strong force in national and local life, including K–12 and higher education. There are literally thousands of women’s organizations with a range of missions and agendas, some in opposition to each other, but most are logical library partners. Be sure to look for a local, county, or state government commission on the status of women. If you can’t find one, check the National Association of Commissions for Women, which has a clickable map of its more than 200 members.

Potential partner organizations are recommended here. For even more leads, check out the National Council of Women’s Organizations, “a nonpartisan, nonprofit umbrella organization of more than 200 groups, which collectively represent over 10 million women across the country.” NCWO members work together on a range of public policy issues of concern to women and girls. The website has a useful list of member organizations with links organized by subject expertise. Also, the National Council for Research on Women, “a network of more than 100 leading U.S. research, advocacy, and policy centers,” provides a topical list of organizations with expertise from which libraries could access speakers or resources, including those concerning current issues.

When developing partnerships, keep in mind these four simple guidelines:

  • Send staff to community organization meetings to see how your library could contribute to their programs and projects.
  • Read the local paper to find out what other area groups are doing.
  • Invite community groups to cosponsor library programs. This will extend the reach of the library by drawing in more program participants and help you develop an ongoing relationship with the organizations.
  • Offer library resources to community groups, such as annotated reading lists, access to library materials, space for exhibits and programs, and program ideas.

Middle Country Public Library in Centereach, New York, partners with local organizations year-round, cultivating the library’s image as a welcoming community resource. For the past nine years growing out of an initial partnership with the Long Island Fund for Women and Girls, the library has hosted a fall Women’s Expo, “a showcase and a marketplace for Long Island women entrepreneurs, artisans, [and] importers,” with an expanding list of partners that includes local media, businesses, banks, and community organizations. Well over 1,500 people attend. Women exhibitors also receive help in developing their capability. This economic-development activity could be replicated during NWHM or at any other time of year.

Whether you program with a partner or go solo, your local community should be your first-line resource for NWHM celebrations. Why? Local program presenters often come with their own audience, are often free or low cost, and typically know area interests and needs. (And remember: Your own library is one of those local resources.)

It doesn’t matter how large or small your library, who you serve, whether you are print oriented, all digital, or like most libraries a hybrid: You can do something for National Women’s History Month.

KAY ANN CASSELL is an assistant director of the MLIS program in the Department of Library and Information Science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She was previously the associate director for collections and services at New York Public Library. KATHLEEN WEIBEL is a retired librarian with experience in public and academic libraries and a history of activism regarding feminist issues.



Personal Branding for Librarians

Distinguishing yourself from the professional herd