Welcoming Our GLBT Patrons
by C. A. Gardner
Since 1948, and through its revisions and amendments in 1961 and 1980, the Library Bill of Rights adopted by the Council of the American Library Association has served to protect and support the rights of patrons regardless of "origin, age, background, or views." Indeed, the Library Bill of Rights specifically states, in its opening sentence, "Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves," and goes on to reaffirm that "Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval."1 Yet despite this promise, we know that this policy is not universally enacted; even those librarians who strive for balanced collections may have second thoughts about material that they fear will be challenged, while others may deliberately avoid controversial subject areas, often with the excuse that there really isn't a call for those materials in that particular community, whose majority would object to the inclusion of such resources. Other libraries that do not have a known member of a particular minority group on staff may simply overlook the needs of some less vocal communities. While this exclusion may not be deliberate, it is just as harmful to the patrons who silently look to the library for help.
One such group is the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning (GLBT2) community. Despite increasing visibility and acceptance, the GLBT community still encounters violence and discrimination on a daily basis, and has to cope with everything from casual slurs to physical attacks on persons and property and the threat of losing jobs or being alienated from family and friends.3 It's no wonder that many are not willing to publicly discuss their sexual identity. It's also no surprise that these individuals should view the library as a safe haven where they can explore their concerns without fear of condemnation.4 Yet all too often, GLBT patrons find that they are invisible within the library as well. Key works and award—winning titles, not to mention up-to-date resources on vital health topics, are absent from the shelves. The fact that, by their very nature, GLBT materials are often deemed controversial highlights the problem faced by these patrons. While the library is busy expanding services to other minority groups, there may not even be a strong core collection for GLBT patrons. According to a number of studies5, many libraries in America — particularly public and school libraries, where the materials are often the most needed — are lacking in key GLBT areas. Not only do many collections fail with limited and outdated information, the collection may suffer from ineffective or misleading cataloging and the failure to provide visible solutions to information needs with booklists, displays, or any of the other forms of recognition usually accorded to minority groups and specific interest areas.… even those librarians who strive for balanced collections may have second thoughts about material they fear will be challenged …
Forget the excuses. Virtually every library in America has GLBT patrons. Despite stereotypes, these patrons cannot always be recognized on sight, and they come from the widest variety of ethnic, cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds imaginable. An adequate means to measure the size of this population does not exist (due to fear, underreporting, the problem of definitions, and many other factors).6 Though we do have the beginnings of an idea thanks to the 2000 census, even this instrument shows its inherent bias, capturing figures for every minority in the United States except non-heterosexuals. The closest the census comes to reporting data for GLBT people is through the provision of "same-sex unmarried partner" data.7 This data only measures those who are currently in an overtly homosexual relationship and living with the partner in question — and willing to report that relationship to a government instrument. Single people, bisexuals, the transgendered or questioning, gay people in heterosexual marriages, and those who prefer to maintain separate dwellings all continue to go uncounted; and census-takers were instructed to rule as invalid any same-sex married partner data due to federal legislation regarding marriage.8 The census data thus only provides a hint of a much larger community — probably at least two-thirds larger than reported data. Yet even these partial statistics are revealing. The "Profile of General Demographic Characteristics" for Virginia shows that in 2000, Virginia had 126,365 unmarried-partner households,9 out of which 7,535 were comprised of a "male householder and male partner" and 7,735 of a "female householder and female partner."10 This gives a figure of 15,270 gay and lesbian couples in Virginia in 2000 — in other words, 30,540 gays and lesbians in live-in, stable relationships who were willing to report their status to the census.
Studies have shown the importance of libraries to the GLBT population, particularly during the initial quest for identity. The library is seen as an impartial refuge, containing information one might be castigated for seeking elsewhere.11 In the late 1980s, Janet Creelman and Roman Harris conducted the first empirical studies of the information needs of the GLBT population, particularly lesbians in the coming-out stage. These studies showed that, with the exception of consulting other lesbians, print sources (seventy—eight percent) were the chief source of information about issues such as coming to terms with one's identity, dealing with coming out to others, learning "the rules," and finding community. Likewise, the library itself was the first choice in the quest for knowledge of eighty-four percent of lesbian information seekers. Nevertheless, a full fifty-three percent of respondents indicated that the sources found in the library were inadequate for their needs due to lack of current materials, lack of relevancy (a preponderance of emphasis on gay men), lack of practical information, and a collection that focused on depressing or negative viewpoints. While online resources have taken on a strong role since then, print continues to play a vital role, with its ability to provide greater depth and detail. GLBT magazines and newspapers can be especially helpful in dealing with current issues and information needs; however, few North American libraries carry this material, and when they do, they frequently carry only the most well-known title, The Advocate.12 And while some library collections have improved, further studies have replicated those early findings, demonstrating both the importance of the library and its failings, and resulting in two key suggestions for improvement: a more approachable and sensitive library staff and better quality collections.13… despite petitions, the books were not returned to the middle school.
School libraries often face the most rigorous challenges in providing GLBT material, as librarian Christine Enterline discovered when attempting to update her middle school's biography collection, stocking it with new works on all minorities, including a series on famous GLBT people who might provide inspiration and encouragement to students. School administrators removed the books before they even hit the shelves, ostensibly to review them for age-appropriateness; despite petitions, the books were not returned to the middle school. Though the books were eventually relocated to a district high school and the middle school library's collection development policy was strengthened to guard against censorship due to sexual orientation, Enterline felt that the negative message had already been sent.14 Facing the possibility of such confrontations with both parents and administrators, many school librarians choose to avoid purchasing controversial materials; but this silence puts GLBT youth in danger. Not only are these young people subject to one of the most homophobic and hostile environments — the school atmosphere, in which "gay" is used as an insult, homophobic slurs will be heard by each student an average of five times an hour, and beatings of gay students occur with disturbing frequency — their isolated position also places them at greater risk for violence, abuse, and suicide.15 As Debra Lau Whelan reports in School Library Journal,
Gay teens may stress the importance of identifying with characters in books, but when someone like Laurie Taylor, the Fayetteville, AR, parent who recently challenged 58 sexually explicit books in her local school library, gets national attention, the spines of many librarians and administrators suddenly go limp. What's the risk? Michael Glatze, the editor-in-chief of YgA, a bimonthly magazine with a circulation of 10,000 that targets young gay America, says it best: "Librarians shouldn't be in the business of denying information." Without vital books and resources, gay kids can end up in high-risk situations involving online predators or turn to drugs to help them cope. "Confidence comes from information and knowing that you're not alone," Glatze says.16
Imaginative works that portray realistic GLBT characters are extremely important in building self-esteem and providing a sense of normalcy. In addition, such depictions can help to increase understanding and reduce homophobia by broadening the minds of others. However, the best — and most popular — GLBT imaginative works, including poetry, fiction, and drama, are frequently nowhere to be found in the library's holdings.17 Some researchers have actually performed and published title-by-title checks of North American library catalogs for works that are either cited in prominent review sources or recipients of GLBT awards. While some titles are held, the distribution and coverage is spotty and unpredictable.18 In addition, though other minorities and subjects may have booklists or even monthly displays to help guide patrons to resources or enlighten them to the presence of helpful materials, seldom if ever are such provisions made for GLBT materials.19
Some librarians avoid the issue of collecting for the GLBT population by pointing out that their library already upholds the ALA Library Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read statements, which prohibit discrimination.20 Yet discrimination is occurring in the lack of selections being made. Indeed, self-censorship seems to be even more of a problem in libraries than challenges. Here's a case in point. A quick search of the catalog of one public library system in a metropolitan area of Virginia revealed at least 183 distinct DVD and VHS editions of movies that had won Academy Awards. Of these, twenty-six distinct titles, many of which were duplicated in DVD and VHS editions, held an R rating for sexual situations and/or violence. Yet when one member of the collection development committee tried to request that the library purchase Brokeback Mountain, the request was rejected for unspecified reasons. Was it due to the fear of offending conservative patrons? The film was actually very popular with the mainstream audience, grossing $83,043,761 in the United States and achieving a worldwide gross of $175,843,761; it was number one at the box office from January 17 to 19, 2006, never left the top ten through February 16, and was still hitting in the top ten through March 7.21 More to the point, Brokeback Mountain won three Academy Awards and was nominated for five others. In addition, not counting nominations, Brokeback Mountain won three BAFTA Film awards, the David Lean Award for Direction, the Boston Society of Film Critics Award, three Broadcast Film Critics Association awards, three Central Ohio Film Critics awards, two Chicago Film Critics Association awards, four Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association awards, a Directors Guild of America Award, four Florida Film Critics Circle awards, a GLAAD Media Award, four Golden Globes, two Independent Spirit awards, two London Critics Circle Film awards, two Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards, two National Board of Review awards, three New York Film Critics Circle awards, two Online Film Critics Society awards, a PGA Golden Laurel Award, five Phoenix Film Critics Society awards, three San Francisco Film Critics Circle awards, four Satellite awards, three Southeastern Film Critics Association awards, two Vancouver Film Critics Circle awards, a Golden Lion (Venice Film Festival), and a Writers Guild of America Award22 — and I'm probably leaving out a few.
Surely these credentials would be enough to withstand any patron challenge, even for a public library with a conservative patron base — particularly if that library had a collection development policy that upheld the acquisition of award-winning movies. As it stands, the deliberate lack of inclusion of such a noteworthy film sends a somewhat sinister message.… the deliberate lack of lnclusion of such a noteworthly film sends a somewhat sinister message.
A similar problem occurs with misleading or inadequate cataloging. Some well-meaning librarians may purchase GLBT materials, but through fear of challenges, classify them in what might be deemed a less controversial location (such as cataloging works of fiction under a nonfiction number), or otherwise make them less visible through lessened subject access so that only the most dedicated searchers will discover them. Segregating these materials by relegating them to a less prominent area of the library serves neither the GLBT community, who deserve to be able to find their materials by browsing like other patrons, nor the populace at large, whose lives might be enriched by encountering these works. One of the key tenets of classification, it should be remembered, is that works on a like subject shall be placed together on the shelf — even works that offer opposing or controversial viewpoints.
One recent case of deliberate miscataloging that has made the news involves the picture book And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole. Like many works of fiction, this book is based on a true story — in this case, the story of two male penguins who acted as a mated couple in raising a chick. Like many other children's books based on autobiographical or historical incidents, it is intended for an audience of fiction-readers. In Missouri, librarians moved the book from children's fiction to nonfiction in response to the protest of two parents.23 This not only makes the book more difficult to find for those who have read positive reviews and expect to find it with other picture books, but also sends an offensive message — that fictional works portraying gay characters are by their very nature too harmful to place in a section of the library where any child might read them. Unfortunately, other librarians who have read about this case have seen this as a viable solution, and some library systems in Virginia have voluntarily chosen to class the book in nonfiction, without waiting for protests to arise.
With a number of prominent GLBT bookstores going out of business due to changes in the bookselling market,24 and the concentration in chain bookstores on higher-selling titles from large commercial presses,25 there's even more need for libraries to make an effort to close the information gap. Librarians should be aware that many quality GLBT publications arise or are kept in print primarily through the small press. As a result, these books might not be carried by large distribution groups such as Baker & Taylor. For the same reason, the broad range of GLBT titles are often underrepresented in review sources, in part due to the lower profile of the small press.26 In addition, specific titles might be overlooked because of the increasing trend in modern publishing to market GLBT works as literary fiction instead of openly appealing to GLBT audiences.27 For a truly accurate picture of the GLBT titles available, more targeted sources such as the Lambda Book Review ought to be consulted,28 in addition to special reports in mainstream publications, such as the annual review of GLBT titles in Publishers Weekly or ALA's quarterly GLBTRT Task Force Newsletter, complete with reviews and advice. Booklist and Library Journal provide information about current GLBT titles, while Baker & Taylor offers the catalog Pride: Your Source for Gay and Lesbian DVDs and Videos. There are also a number of book-length collection development tools, such as Lesbian and Gay Voices: An Annotated Bibliography and Guide to Literature for Children and Young Adults by Frances Ann Day and Gay and Lesbian Library Service by Cal Gough and Ellen Greenblatt. Many others can be discovered through the resources at the end of this article.Silence is one of the most pernicious forms of prejudice.
In seeking to improve library service to GLBT patrons, the most important factor may be simple awareness. Many librarians may either unconsciously forget about this constituency, or consciously seek to avoid controversy. Staff diversity training on GLBT issues would certainly help, fostering more sensitive interactions with the public, drawing awareness to collection development needs, and providing a more eloquent ability to defend these materials.
One of the most effective means of successfully standing against a challenge is to have a collection development policy that addresses such issues clearly in place. Bibliographic notes in the catalog, such as the 586 Awards Note, will provide a quick reference point for both patrons and librarians about why the materials were chosen. Keeping a file with recommended and award-winning titles can also serve a dual purpose, providing collection development possibilities and offering evidence in support of particular titles when faced with a challenge.
Another important act is codifying a positive commitment to improving collections for the GLBT community, rather than simply stating that no discrimination will be allowed. As would be done for any other library constituency, a core group of GLBT titles in current editions should be made available. Consulting award lists and comparing them to current holdings is a good start. Further collection development can be tailored to individual audiences; public libraries can learn about the specific needs and interests of their geographic areas by consulting local GLBT organizations, newspapers, and bookstores, while university and special libraries should remember to be aware of GLBT topics not only in the queer studies arena, but also where these issues intersect with other disciplines and fields.
Silence is one of the most pernicious forms of prejudice. Don't fail your GLBT patrons out of fear. Remember, the Library Bill of Rights doesn't require us to agree with the viewpoints or lifestyles of our patrons. It requires us to respect them, to provide the resources they need, and to uphold their right to service even in the face of challenges.
Resources for GLBT Collection Development
Collection Development Policies
- Collection Development Policies Related to GLBT Issues, http://www.cervone.com/html/glbt_collection_development.html
GLBT Literary Awards & Organizations
- ALA's Stonewall Book Awards, http://www.ala.org/ala/glbtrt/stonewall/stonewallbook.htm
- Gaylactic Spectrum Awards Foundation, http://www.spectrum awards.org/
- Lambda Literary Foundation (includes Lambda Literary Awards and the Lambda Book Report), http://www.lambdaliterary.org/
- Prism Comics: Your LGBT Guide to Comics, available in print from http://www.prismcomics.org/index.php. (This comic-style annual provides an ongoing review of GLBT characters appearing in mainstream comics each year, as well as reviews of GLBT-authored titles.)
- The Publishing Triangle: The Association of Lesbians and Gay Men in Publishing, http://www.publishingtriangle.org/
- Saints and Sinners: An Alternative Literary Festival for the GLBT Community, Their Friends, and All Readers and Writers, http://www.sasfest.org/
Additional Collection Development Resources
- American Library Association Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Round Table, http://www.ala.org/ala/glbtrt/welcomeglbtround.htm
- "Beyond Angst: What's New in Literature and Resources for GLBT Youth and Their Allies" by Evi Klett and Becker Parkhurst-Strout, http://webjunction.org/do/Navigation?category=12989
- The Gay & Lesbian Atlas, by Gary J. Gates and Jason Ost, 2004, ISBN 0-87766-721-7, Urban Institute Press, http://www.urban.org/pubs/gayatlas/ (With data from the 2000 U.S. Census, this resource provides not only the most accurate known statistics about local GLBT populations in the U.S., but also offers data on their age ranges and other social factors, allowing for a collection tailored to meet local needs.)
- GLBTQ: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer Culture, "Literature," http://www.glbtq.com/subject/literature_a-b.html
- Guide to Gay and Lesbian Resources: A Classified Bibliography Based upon the Collections of the University of Chicago Library by Frank Conaway, Sebastian Hierl, and Sem Sutter, http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/su/gaylesb/glguide.html
- "Lesbian Resources on the Web" by Ellen Greenblatt, http://www.library.wisc.edu/libraries/WomensStudies/fc/fcwebgrn.htm
- "LGBT/Queer Studies Library Research Guide: Diversity & Ethnic Studies" by Susan A. Vega Garcia, http://www.public.iastate.edu/~savega/lesbigay.htm
- Librarians' Internet Index: Websites You Can Trust, "Gay and Lesbian Studies," http://www.lii.org/pub/subtopic/2017
- "Out of the Closet?" by Jim Van Buskirk, http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA512184.html
- Queertheory.com, "Libraries and Archives," http://www.queertheory.com/academics/queer_libraries_archives.htm
- "Recommended LGBT/Queer Studies Websites: Diversity & Ethnic Studies" by Susan A. Vega Garcia, http://www.public.iastate.edu/~savega/les_biga.htm
1American Library Association, "Library Bill of Rights," in Intellectual Freedom: Statements and Policies [website] 23 January 1996 [cited 24 May 2006]; available from http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/statementspols/statementsif/librarybillrights.htm.
2This acronym takes many forms and includes many groups. Some of the more common variants include GLBT, LGBT, and either with a "Q" at the end. I have chosen "GLBT" purely for convenience, as it seems to be the older established acronym.
3Jim Van Buskirk, "Out of the Closet?," in Library Journal.com [journal online] 1 April 2005 [cited 12 May 2006]; available from http://www.libraryjournal.com/-article/CA512184.html.
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4Catherine J. Ritchie, "Collection Development of Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual-Related Adult Non-Fiction in Medium-Sized Illinois Public Libraries." Illinois Libraries 83.2 (2001): 39-70.
5Steven L. Joyce, "Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Library Service: A Review of the Literature." Public Libraries 39.5 (2002): 270-9.
Alex Spence, "Gay Young Adult Fiction in the Public Library: A Comparative Survey." Public Libraries 38.4 (1999): 224-9.
"What Percentage of the Population Is Gay?," in People like Us [website] 19 August 2003 [cited 12 May 2006]; available from http://www.plu.sg/main/facts_05.htm.
7Margie Mason, "Census Figures on Same-Sex Couples," in SpeakOut.com [website] 8 August 2001 [cited 12 May 2006]; available from http://speakout.com/-activism/-apstories/10044-1.html.
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8U.S. Census Bureau, "Technical Note on Same-Sex Unmarried Partner Data from the 1990 and 2000 Censuses," in United States Census 2000 [website] 31 July 2002 [cited 12 May 2006]; available from http://www.census.gov/population/www/cen2000/samesex.html.
9U.S. Census Bureau, "DP-1. Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000. Data Set: Census 2000 Summary File 1 (SF 1) 100-Percent Data. Geographic Area: Virginia," in United States Census 2000 [website] 2000 [cited 12 May 2006]; available from http://www.fact-finder.census.gov/servlet/QTTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=04000US51&-qr_name=DEC_2000_SF1_U_DP1&-ds_name=DEC_2000_SF1_U&-_lang=en&-redoLog=false&-_sse=on.
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10U.S. Census Bureau, "PCT21. Unmarried-Partner Households by Sex of Partners  — Universe: Households. Data Set: Census 2000 Summary File 4 (SF 4) — Sample Data," in United States Census 2000 [website] 2000 [cited 12 May 2006]; available from http://factfinder.census.gov/-servlet/DTTable?_bm=y&-state=dt&-context=dt&-ds_name=DEC_2000_SF4_U&-mt_name=DEC_2000_SF4_U_PCT021&-tree_id=404&-redoLog=true&-all_geo_types=N&-_caller=geoselect&-geo_id=04000US51&-search_results=01000US&-format=&-_lang=en.
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Oddly enough, the total number of unmarried partners listed in this table is different than that of the "Profile of General Demographic Characteristics." In "Unmarried-Partner Households by Sex of Partners," the total figure for Virginia is listed as 120,466.
14Andrea Glick, "Disappearing Books." School Library Journal 47.2 (2001): 18-19.
Rick Margolis, "Settlement Reached on Gay Books," in SLJ.com [journal online] 1 May 2001 [cited 12 May 2006]; available from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA73648.html.
15C. J. Bott, "Fighting the Silence: How to Support Your Gay and Straight Students." Voice of Youth Advocates 23.1 (2000): 22, 24, 26.
Sandra Hughes-Hassell and Alissa Hinckley, "Reaching Out to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth." Journal of Youth Services in Libraries 15.1 (2001): 39-41.
Dan Woog, "Friends, Families, and the Importance of Straight Allies." Voice of Youth Advocates 23.1 (2000): 23, 25-6.
16Debra Lau Whelan, "Out and Ignored: Why Are So Many School Libraries Reluctant to Embrace Gay Teens?," in SLJ.com [journal online] 1 January 2006 [cited 12 May 2006]; available from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6296527.html.
17Joyce. Ritchie. Spence.
"Brokeback Mountain: Daily Breakdown," in Box Office Mojo [website] 2006 [cited 12 May 2006]; available from http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=daily&id=-brokebackmountain.htm.
"Brokeback Mountain: Summary," in Box Office Mojo [website] 2006 [cited 12 May 2006]; available from http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=brokebackmountain.htm.
Susanna Schrobsdorff, "Chick Flick Cowboys: Brokeback Mountain Has Stolen the Hearts of Women in Middle America," in Newsweek [online magazine] 20 January 2006 [cited 12 May 2006]; available from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10930877/site/newsweek/.
23"'Gay' Penguins Book Frozen Out in Missouri Libraries," in Chicago Sun-Times [newspaper online] 5 March 2006 [cited 12 May 2006]; available from http://www.suntimes.com/output/news/cst-nws-flap05.html.
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24Charlotte Abbott, "Battening Down the Niche." Publishers Weekly 248.17 (2001): 32-4.
Kevin Howell, "Changes Hit Gay/Lesbian Businesses." Publishers Weekly 247.30 (2000): 12.
Kevin Howell, "Difficult Times at a Different Light." Publishers Weekly 246.30 (1999): 21-2.
25Michael Bronski, "After the 'Boom.'" Publishers Weekly 246.18 (1999): 38-42.
Additional Sources Consulted
Archer, Michael S. "A Winning Partnership." Publishers Weekly 248.52 (2001): 20-1.
Boff, Colleen. "Book Review: Lesbian and Gay Voices." Reference & User Services Quarterly 40.4 (2001): 389.
"Challenging Homophobia in Schools." Teacher Librarian 28.4 (2001): 27-30.
High, J. A. "A New Dawn at a Different Light." Publishers Weekly 248.7 (2001): 91-2.
Hix, Charles. "A New Generation Has Arrived." Publishers Weekly 248.17 (2001): 30-1.
Hix, Charles, and Robert Dahlin. "Selected Gay & Lesbian Titles 2001." Publishers Weekly 248.17 (2001): 35-41.
Kawaguchi, Karen. "A Coming-Out Party for InsightOut Books." Publishers Weekly 247.34 (2002): 32.
Loverich, Patricia, and Darrah Degnan. "Out on the Shelves? Not Really." Library Journal 124.11 (1999): 55.
McCaslin, Michael. "A Brief History of Gerber/Hart Library." Illinois Libraries 91.4 (1999): 228-31.
Oder, Norman. "Filter-Makers Sue, Threaten Critics." Library Journal 125.7 (2000): 24.
Tan, Cecilia. "Pride & Perseverance." Publishers Weekly 246.18 (1999): 43-6.
Van Buskirk, Jim. "Passages of Pride." Library Journal 123.8 (1998): 120-1.