Libraries and the LGBT community
In the post-Stonewall era, the role of libraries in providing information and services to LGBTQ individuals has been a topic of discussion in library profession. Libraries can often play an important role for LGBTQ individuals looking to find information about coming out, health, and family topics, as well as leisure reading. In the past forty years, advocate organizations for LGBTQ content in libraries have emerged, and numerous theorists have discussed various aspects of LGBTQ library service including privacy concerns, collection development considerations and librarian/staff education needs, as well as special services for juvenile and teen patrons.
- 1 History
- 2 Challenges
- 3 Collection development considerations
- 4 Advice for libraries
- 5 LGBTQ and Subject Headings
- 6 LGBTQ children and teen services
- 7 User studies related to LGBTQ library service
- 8 Organizations
- 9 Additional resources
- 10 Footnotes
Commensurate with the LGBT rights movement in other arenas, LGBT activists began visibly advocating for greater representation in libraries in 1969. In 1970, the Task Force on Gay Liberation formed within the American Library Association. Now known as the GLBT Round Table, this organization is the oldest LGBT professional organization in the United States.
In the 1980s, literature began to emerge which examined information seeking behaviors of gay and lesbian library patrons. The 1981 book The Joy of Cataloging by Sanford Berman outlined the difficulties of accessing gay and lesbian books and information. In 1988, the Task Force on Gay Liberation released the “International thesaurus of gay and lesbian index terms,” aimed at standardizing terms used for cataloging gay and lesbian-related library materials, and making Library of Congress Subject Headings friendlier for use by gay and lesbian archives.
Four years later, in 1992, Ellen Greenblatt and Cal Gough published the first collection of essays about the information needs of gay and lesbian patrons, entitled Gay and Lesbian Library Service. The work has since been revised as Serving LGBTIQ Library and Archives Users and remains influential.
In 1992, American Libraries, published a photo of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force (now GLBTRT) on the cover of its July/August issue, drawing both criticism and praise from the library world. Some commenters called the cover “in poor taste” and accused American Libraries of “glorifying homosexuality,” while others were supportive of the move. Christine Williams, who wrote an essay about the controversy surrounding the cover, concluded that in the mid-90s, the library world was “not an especially welcoming place to gays and lesbians."
In 2007, the Rainbow Project Task Force began within the ALA to promote the presence of LGBTQ juvenile and young adult literature in library collections. The group now maintains an annotated bibliography of LGBTQ titles for youth and teens, as well the yearly Rainbow List featuring the best of LGBTQ YA and children’s titles.
In their 2006 study of LGBT book circulation in an academic library, Stephanie Mathson and Jeffery Hancks found that LGBT titles were 20% more likely to circulate via a self-checkout machine than a traditional circulation desk staffed by a person. However, their sample size was small, so study results may be inconclusive.
Need for library staff education
Providing unbiased service to all patrons is one of the central tenants of the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association. Articles dating back to Richard Ashby’s 1987 piece entitles ‘Library Services to Lesbian and Gay People’ have argued that this commitment to neutrality should provide the foundation for complete library service for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender presentation. Ashby argues that libraries, especially in their role as providers of literature for pleasure reading, can support LGBTQ individuals overcome a sense of isolation within the larger community. He emphasizes the importance of staff education to provide all LGBTQ individuals a safe space within the library, including:
- Training staff to work with diverse populations, specifically LGBTQ patrons
- Comprehensive and effective collection development policies for LGBTQ materials
- Librarian education to gain familiarity with publishers or sources for LGBTQ materials, including the utilization of local bookstores or community groups.
Echoing many of Ashby’s assertions in her 2007 paper entitled “Can Scottish public library services claim they are socially inclusive of all minority groups when lesbian fiction is still so inaccessible?”, Jaqueline Goldthorp outlines some of the challenges that lesbians face when trying to find lesbian fiction in Scottish libraries. She ties her study of lesbian literature to the importance of reading fiction on the psychological well-being of women, arguing that women often turn to fiction reading for self-affirmation and identity building. In addition, lesbian fiction titles can be priced up to 30% higher than non-lesbian titles, meaning that, for many low-income or working class lesbians, libraries are the only means of access for these titles Goldthorp surveyed 26 Scottish libraries and found that, in 2007, the majority had less than ten books labelled at “lesbian fiction,” and almost no recent award-winning titles. She suggests diversity training and education about methods and resources for providing service to lesbians for library staff as a way of promoting greater inclusion.
Mehra and Braquet’s 2007 article “Library and Information Science Professionals as Community Action Researchers in an Academic Setting” expands further upon the central role of librarians in promoting LGBTQ acceptance, noting that the profession is “uniquely situated to provide access to LGBT literature and information.”
Collection development considerations
In a 2005 article in the journal Progressive Librarian, Jennifer Downey argued that even award winning books by or about LGBTQ individuals fail to make it into library collections. She cites internal censorship as one potential cause, as well as the assumption that library patrons who want LGBTQ titles will simply request them from other libraries via inter-library loan. In addition, she found that many librarians were unfamiliar with LGBTQ titles. To increase familiarity, she recommends reading LGBTQ book review sources and bringing others, including community members into the process, suggestions which she draws from Loverich and Degnan’s 1999 article "Out of the Shelves."
A 2012 Publisher’s Weekly article cites the growing diversity of small presses that publish LGBTQ titles, but a decline in the traditional romance and erotica genres. The article also discusses the mainstreaming of LGBT literature, though emphasizes that even with wider acceptance of LGBTQ identities, the need for LGBTQ stories has not disappeared and that independent publishers are still the largest producers of LGBTQ literature.
Advice for libraries
- Seek out LGBTQ-specific review sources, such as The Lambda Literary Review, and collection development tools.
- Conduct focus groups with communities to discover needs.
- Increase visibility of LGBTQ materials in the library by including them in regular displays or featuring them in pathfinders or book lists.
LGBTQ and Subject Headings
Before the 1960's homosexuality (McCLary, 2007) was the basic search heading for most libraries that followed the Library of Congress Subject Headings, was that of "Homosexuality" (Johnson, 2010). It wasn't until the late 1960's that the link of "See" was removed when it was connected to "Sexual perversions, (Johnson, 2010)." Since then, LGBTQ peoples have made major strides in reforming the subject headings that many libraries use. Another effect of this attention being paid toward Library headings was the removal of euphemistic language from catalogs. The normal library user wants direct and uncomplicated language when they are searching for topics of their interest. As such when former headings, such as "Male Friendship" or "Sex Roles" (McClary, 2007), were used this was not the case. By creating new and accurate headings for the LGBTQ community, it is shown that not only are they an acknowledged part of the community but that they are welcome as well. The end goal of which is to make it easier for LGBTQs to find information that is pertinent to their needs (Mathson, 2006). By creating this level of acceptance in just a virtual database will go very far in creating an understating that gays, lesbians, etc are not some abnormality in society.
LGBTQ children and teen services
Alexander Parks and others have identified libraries as potentially important safe places for LGBTQ youth and teens, especially in the face of bullying. He suggests the inclusion of LGBTQ titles in library displays or book talks to promote greater visibility. However, according to an 2005 study by Ann Curry, though many LGBTQ teens have the very similar concerns to their adult counterparts, librarians often do not answer their questions related to LGBTQ topics in a sensitive or welcoming manner. Studies by Carmichael and Greenblatt have emphasized that the library is an important place for teens who are coming out to find information because of the potential anonymity it provides.
Impact of the Internet
LGBTQ individuals were some of the early adopters of the internet, and are still represented in high percentages across social media. In addition, 55% of LGBTQ individuals who responded to a 2009 survey said that they read blogs, compared to 38% of heterosexual respondents. The internet can often be influential to young people seeking information about health, coming out, or to find community, but can also put teens at risk of cyberbullying or harassment. Some libraries and schools, notably the school district in Camdenton, Mo, have been ordered to remove internet filtering software that blocked access to LGBTQ friendly websites that teens often turn to for support.
Creelman and Harris (1990)
Possibly the first study to provide a comprehensive overview of the information needs of non-heterosexual people, Creelman and Harris’ article focused on lesbians' information needs at specific points in their lives. They used a sense-making model which considered lesbians' information needs within a particular context. Their data came from a series of 50 interviews with lesbian women who were part of a lesbian group in Toronto, Canada, and used the snowball sampling approach to recruit additional participants. Eighty-four percent of interviewees said that they were aware of the library as a source of information related to lesbian identities, compared to 62% who were aware of gay bars and 58% aware of gay and lesbian organizations,. However, the authors found many respondents were frustrated with the negative or male-centric literature that made up the bulk of information available in libraries; libraries needed to ensure that information was readily available, current and positive to best serve lesbian populations.
Alisa Whitt’s 1993 study also focused on the information needs of lesbians and what lesbians expected from the library during different life stages. Whitt collected data by sending out a survey via a lesbian newsletter that circulated in North Carolina, which drew 141 respondents.
For many lesbians who responded to Whitt’s survey, the library was the most important source for locating information during the initial stages of coming out, especially in remote areas without a visible community. Whitt determined three shifts in the type of information desired by respondents, from early in the coming out process to a later, more established identity. She found that information needs went from broad to specifically focused, from factual or non-fiction to entertainment or fiction and that respondents became more discerning about the information they needed with age.
Many respondents who never used the library cited embarrassment or lack of knowledge about available information as reasons. Even those that did frequent the library often said that they were too embarrassed to ask for help; many expected shocked reactions or outright homophobia from librarians. Some common complaints about library collections from those who did use them were that information was negative, outdated or difficult to find. Whitt concluded that more staff training was needed to address these perceptions. She also found that those respondents who regularly used a college or university library had a more positive experience finding needed information than those who used only the public library.
Joyce and Schrader (1997)
In the first user study specifically addressed towards gay males, Joyce and Schrader studied perceptions of the library system in Edmonton, Canada. Using an anonymous questionnaire distributed to gay community organizations, the authors collected data on 21 questions related to three aspects of information seeking: personal information, information needs related to coming out and ongoing information needs. The survey had 47 respondents who had a generally high level of education.
The library was the most often cited resource of information related to coming out and for ongoing needs, followed by gay organizations and friends. When asked what types of materials respondents borrowed from the library, they most frequently cited music, followed by nonfiction and fiction. However, respondents had an overall negative impression about the amount of information related to gay males contained in the library, and suggested the need for expanding the gay collection, networking with gay and lesbian organizations and subscribing to gay magazines.
Joyce and Schrader found similarities between their study and the ones by Whitt and Creelman and Harris which came before it. Some of the common themes included the importance of the library, especially in the early stages of coming out, the need for more specific information over time and the general lack of services.
Norman’s 1999 study provides quantitative analysis of survey responses from 44 self-identified lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals using the Brighton and Hove (UK) public libraries. The survey was aimed at identifying five aspects of the libraries’ LGB users, including demographics, the effect of centralizing a collection, whether LGB individuals use bibliographies to find reading as well as reasons for using and perceptions of library service. Results of the survey were analyzed using SPSS.
Results indicated that fiction or other materials for entertainment were the most popular materials from the library, and that more than half used bibliographies to locate new reading materials. Many respondents cited the high prices of gay or lesbian books as one of the reasons for heavy use of the library. Though some respondents felt that the balance of lesbian to gay titles was skewed in favor of lesbian titles, the overall perception of Hove and Brighton’s services to LGB patrons was excellent or good.
As an offshoot of her dissertation research, Rothbauer interviewed 17 self-identified lesbian, bisexual and queer women between the ages of 18 and 23 about their discretionary reading habits. To analyze the data, she used open-coding techniques for textual analysis, and also relied on some participant writing and journals.
Rothbauer’s findings indicate that fiction reading is an aspirational activity for young lesbian, bisexual and queer woman; many participants hoped that fiction would show the “possibilities of claiming a queer identity” and were frustrated by works that contained an overly negative or homophobic view of lesbian life. Rothbauer identified four trends in her participants reading choices:
- An orientation towards the future
- A rejection of the standard coming-out narratives
- A desire to read about “being lesbian,” “being queer,” and “being bisexual”
- A connection with the “textual other”
Interviewees also reported feeling a greater connection to community through reading, whether it was through joining fan communities of favorite authors, or discussing and sharing books with others.
The public library was one of the most important points of access for interviewees, along with the internet and bookstores. Interviewees often relied heavily on online library catalogs as safe, anonymous searches to explore lesbian fiction. Participants often did not find what they were looking for in online catalogs, but were not surprised by the lack of materials. Rothbauer suggests making materials more visible, and also improving the scope and currency of library holdings to reach these users.
Beiriger and Jackson (2007)
In an effort to rectify the lack of research related to the information needs of transgender individuals, Beiriger and Jackson’s article surveyed the transgender population in the Transgender/Identity Resource Center (TiRC) in Portland, Oregon. Using a survey tool adapted from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Wellness Project of Ottawa-Carleton, Cananda, the authors distributed the survey through TiRC staff and counselors, as well as online through listserves and websites.
Analysis of the 99 responses to the survey show that the library is one of the last places that transgender people turn for information due to lack up to date health information, or an unwelcoming environment. Library collections meant to support the needs of transgender individuals were generally less comprehensive than those serving their gay and lesbian counterparts. The authors found that librarians should do more outreach to transgender communities to communicate a message of welcome, and that the internet could be a potentially powerful tool for outreach to these underrepresented populations.
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT)
The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT) is a subdivision of the American Library Association. Its goals are both to support library professionals who identify as LGBTQ as well as promote access to LGBTQ materials for library users. In addition, GLBTRT seeks to create new classification schemes for LGBTQ books that do not stigmatize these identities, and promote access under the ALA’s Code of Ethics and Library Bill of Rights. The GLBTRT also administers the yearly Stonewall Book Awards for juvenile, young adult and adult LGBTQ fiction.
Archivists Gay and Lesbian Roundtable (LAGAR)
The Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable (LAGAR) is a group within the Society of American Archivists which advocates for the preservation of materials related to LGBT history within the archival profession.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) Users Special Interest Group (SIG)
The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) LGBTQ Users SIG is charged to address the gap in professional knowledge of LGBTQ users' needs by offering opportunities to engage in discussions about this often invisible user group. This SIG considers topics including professional attitudes, outreach, privacy, programming, and effective practice in acquiring and collecting materials of importance to LGBTQ people and allies and encourages thoughtful consideration of issues of sexuality and gender identity. 
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Children and Teen Services
- Gay-Themed Picture Books for Children: http://booksforkidsingayfamilies.blogspot.com/
- QueerYA: Reviews of Fiction of Interest to LGBTQ Teens: http://daisyporter.org/queerya/
- Abate, Michelle Ann and Kenneth Kidd, eds., Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001).
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Incomplete List of LGBTQ Archives/Libraries/Special Collections
- Barbara Gittings Collection (PA): http://libwww.freelibrary.org/explore/shell.cfm?topicTitle=GLBT&template=gittings.cfm
- Black Queer Studies Collection (TX): http://www.lib.utexas.edu/subject/gender/bqsc
- Carter/Johnson Leather Library (PA): http://www.leatherlibrary.org/home.html
- Center for Sex and Culture (CA): http://www.sexandculture.org/lbry
- Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (MO): http://library.umkc.edu/spec-col/glama/index.htm
- Gay City Health Project's Michael C. Weidemann LGBT Library (WA): https://www.gaycity.org/library
- Gerber/Hart Library & Archives (IL): http://www.gerberhart.org
- GLBT Historical Society (CA): http://www.glbthistory.org
- Human Sexuality Collection (NY): http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/HSC
- Indiana University GLBT Student Support Services Library (IN): http://studentaffairs.iub.edu/glbt/library/
- James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center (CA): http://sfpl.org/index.php?pg=0200002401
- June Mazer Lesbian Archives (CA): http://www.mazerlesbianarchives.org
- Kinsey Institute Library & Special Collections (IN): http://www.kinseyinstitute.org/library
- Labadie Collection (MI): http://guides.lib.umich.edu/content.php?pid=29017&sid=253054
- Latino GLBT History Project Historical Archive (DC): http://www.latinoglbthistory.org/about-the-archive
- Lesbian and Gay Pulp Fiction (NC): http://guides.library.duke.edu/queerpulps
- Lesbian Herstory Archives (NY): http://www.lesbianherstoryarchives.org
- Library of Congress LGBT Resources (DC): http://loc.gov/lgbt/resources.html
- Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project (WA): http://lgbthistorynw.org
- Oak Park Public Library Transgender Resource Collection (IL): http://oppl.org/collections/transgender-resource-collection
- ONE Nation Gay & Lesbian Archives (CA): http://www.onearchives.org
- Quatrefoil Library (MN): http://www.quatrefoillibrary.org
- Queer Zine Archive Project (WI): http://www.qzap.org
- Rainbow History Project (DC): http://www.rainbowhistory.org
- Rae Lee Siporin Library (CA): http://www.lgbt.ucla.edu/RaeLeeSiporinLibrary.html
- Teri Rose Memorial Library (IL): http://www.leatherarchives.org/amlibweb/mainmenu.htm
- Transgender Center Library & Archive (TX): http://www.tgctr.org/tg-center/tg-library
- Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives: http://alga.org.au
- Canadian Lesbian+Gay Archives: http://www.clga.ca
- Cooper-Sparks Queer Community Library and Resource Centre (South Africa): http://www.gala.co.za/archives_research/community_library.htm
- International Homo/Lesbian Information Center and Archives (Amsterdam): http://www.homodok.nl/english/english
- Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand/Te Pūranga Takatāpui o Aotearoa: http://www.laganz.org.nz
- Quebec Gay Archives/Les Archives gaies du Québec (Canada): http://www.agq.qc.ca/index.php/en
- Qmunity Out On The Shelves Library (Canada): http://www.qmunity.ca/home/library/
- Pride Library (Canada): http://www.uwo.ca/pridelib
- University of Victoria Transgender Archives (Canada): http://transgenderarchives.uvic.ca
- Centre de Documentació Armand de Fluvià, of Casal Lambda (Spain): http://www.lambda.cat/index.php/centre-de-documentacio.html
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- "Code of Ethics of the American Library Association".
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- Joyce, S.L.P.; Schrader, A.M. Hidden perceptions: Edmonton gay males and the Edmonton Public Library. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Sciences 1997, 22 (1), 19–37.
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