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Review: A Well-Read Woman: The Life, Loves & Legacy of Ruth Rappaport by Katie Stewart

My Interest

I’ve been a librarian since 1989. I’ve worked on two continents, in academic, public, and law libraries and in a special setting doing abstracting for a government contract. My career, hopefully, has another 13-15 years to go. So, when I saw this book in the Kindle/Prime First Reads program, I grabbed it. How often does a librarian get a biography? Almost never.

The Story

Ruth Rappaport, apparently a near “institution” at the Library of Congress, was, unknown to me. It turns out she was a refugee from Nazi Germany, who arrived in the U.S. after both luck and her parents determination made it possible. Her sisters went to Israel. Her parents went to a death camp. That said, she did an impressive job of landing on her feet at an age at which most young people are thinking (in that era) of date night or going to the movies, as the big event of the week.

This biography, written by “third generation” librarian, Katie Stewart, was both impressive (for the research) and distressing (for her youthful, Ivy League-r presumption that everything p.c. today should have been around “back then”). I also got tired of her use of a current trend in history writing that I do not like–speculating on what/how/if the author thought/agreed/did/went. Phases like “Presumably, she would have….” That got very annoying.

The author’s self-righteous virtue signalling over the idea that women were discriminated against in, say 1970 on an Army base in Vietnam, was almost comical. Ditto her disbelief at the continuing of segregation and discrimination at the Library of Congress well past Dr. King’s “I Had a Dream Speech.” It continually detracted from the seriousness of her treatment of Ruth Rapport’s life and career. I occasionally had to ask if this was a serious book. I knew without looking that the author was young–and that shouldn’t be obvious. The reader also shouldn’t wonder if the book was about Ruth or about the author. Yet many of my reading notes are on this very question.

As to the subject herself, I came to both like and not like Ruth. I truly admired her work in Vietnam, building a substantial library system to serve the troops in the field as well as officers and men on regular bases. Her field kits–sets of books and magazines sent to units, were a brilliant concept, if not totally original.

As a librarian, I have long shared nearly every librarian’s frustration with the slowness of changes/additions to the Library of Congress Subject Headings. As Stewart rightly points out, this comes from back in the day when all those card catalog cards had to be re-done and re-filed. Today, happily, change comes a little faster. I began my career almost in Ruth’s world: I typed card catalog cards, filed them, and checked staff filing, in my first professional position. Like Ruth, I, too did a few substantive bibliographies in Library School. A librarian at the time recommended sending one of them to the Library of Congress. In my youthful ignorance, I didn’t do it. Today that work is lost like much of the work save on early word processing technologies.

But, back to Vietnam. One very telling anecdote that the author almost glossed over. A male librarian got a Bronze Star. Ruth, head of the library system, got a reputation as a bitch because she led, organized, and rammed-thru her requests just like a man. In that, I suppose, we are true soulmates. I’m always sickened by the way women must hold back while men can be true leaders. Women can be leaders only in delicate, less obvious ways.

In Vietnam, in the middle of an Army base in a war zone, Ruth complained of harassment, what we would call “sexual harassment” today, years before the term was coined. At the same time, she felt it was fine to carry on with a married man and even let his wife know what had happened. Later in her service she regrets the end of her assignment that lets her live in a Villa and a job with the leisure time to make use of the Country Club–all while young men are dying in the field.

She seems to have seen herself a bit delusionally. That CAN be a good thing on a project like hers in Vietnam, until, as the joke would have it, it isn’t. It’s great to be audacious, to forge a vision, and to see it through. It’s not acceptable to think yourself above rules, schedules and procedures. Ruth was habitually late to work and kept her works in progress in a state of mess. This is frustrating to co-workers and bad for organizational moral–even in war.

Hero Librarian?

As for the question Stewart eventually asks: Was Ruth a hero(ine) librarian? I’d have to say no. Vietnam was an heroic effort, but the rest of her career as a librarian was very ordinary.

Cataloging is one of those tasks that you either love or hate. She spent 20+ years cataloging sociology materials, as well as other types of materials, at the LoC. If she hadn’t taken the job it still would have been done. She did advocate for and see changes made to the Subject Headings in areas such as “The Jewish Question” and “Group Sex” and the like, but that’s what a sociologist/librarian who catalogs is supposed to do–stay abreast of trends and update the access points like subject headings or index terms. That doesn’t meet my definition of heroic.

Ruth took the obvious position and opposed the continuing appointment of non-librarian, male, academics being chosen as Librarian Of Congress, a tradition that President Obama, thankfully, put an end to. But, Ruth didn’t really lead the charge on any great causes, though her work and community activism were done to a professional standard. Fine work, but again, not heroic.

The Title?

Finally, I came to the conclusion that the title was not inaccurate, just silly. I sincerely hope it was just a marketing gimmick that fell a little short of finding a photo of Ruth with a bun and wearing a cardigan to use on the cover. Of course she was well read–she had two degrees from Berkley. That’s the sort of thing that would not have been said about a male librarian. It would be assumed.

My verdict: 3 stars

7 thoughts on “Review: A Well-Read Woman: The Life, Loves & Legacy of Ruth Rappaport by Katie Stewart

  1. I am at the beginning of my library career and have been eager to read this book as well. This was an interesting review! It does sound like the title is a little silly given Rappaport’s prestige. I think Stewart’s speculative-style writing might irk me, too, but I’m going to attempt to read it anyway!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s worth reading–if you are young and new to the field it will give you a feel for the old school work we used to do. Her personal story pre-librarianship is interesting as well. I just wasn’t that fond of the writing and didn’t see what she did as such a big deal. That doesn’t mean “don’t read it” though. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this, have just added to my Goodreads ‘Want To Read’ list and I see I can get it on Kindle from Amazon. My school librarian is still one of my friends – even though she is retired, she encouraged me to be a library monitor and always let me ‘hide out’ in the library during P.T. – for which I will always be grateful.

    Liked by 1 person

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