This was originally presented at Queer Collaborations 2011 (Curtin University, Perth). While it is aimed towards a primarily LGBTQ, non-library audience, it’s content is still relevent to librarians. I am currently writing an companion presentation, Libraries as LGBTQ Friendly Spaces to be presented to librarians at at LibraryCamp Australia, on September 19, 2011, at the State Library of WA.
Reader should also be aware that since this presentation, the label on the children’s picture book, King and King
, has been removed. If you wish to read the response from the State Library of WA, please see here
Also attached at the accompanying slides.
Libraries as queer spaces
By Suzie Day
How many of us were bullied in high school? And how many of us sought refuge in our school library? Libraries have the potential to be queer, or queer friendly spaces, especially when there are no other accessible queer venues, like in country areas. Australian libraries are making some effort, but there is still so much they can do. Some libraries in America are going all out, doing whatever they can to cater to the queer community. And whether you are librarian, library worker, or just a library user, you CAN make a difference in how your local library takes part in our community.
Another way in which libraries within WA are becoming more queer friendly is in collection development and visibility. Libraries are purposely ordering queer lit books, especially the Young Adult genre (the queer YA lit industry is booming at the moment). And then they are taking the time to use genre spine labels. Kalgoorlie public library uses a pink triangle to increase diversity visibility within their collection. Other libraries use a small image of a rainbow. At any rate, by showing their users, queer and straight, that their collection is inclusive.
This idea of collection visibility is being is built on by the presence of reading lists. While this kind of project is subjective from library to library, a number of public libraries have small leaflets, or fliers, with recommended books and authors, separated by genre or subject. Queer lit often get a list of their own. Posters are another method of giving the queer community visibility within a public library. Every library has a number of posters, especially within the children’s and young adults sections. In Kalgoorlie, there is a poster of out actor, Sir Ian McKellen, holding a copy of Lord of the Rings, with the caption simply stating, READ. While it may not seem all that significant to most people, in a small country town, where homosexuality is hardly even talked about, or even acknowledged, a poster such as this can make a world of a difference to a young teenager, held deeply in the closet out of fear.
Dealing with public censorship
Last year, I attended a small Unconference here in Perth, which was attended by about 80 librarians and library students (and yes, that involved coming out to a number of people who could one day be my employer. Still not sure if that was a wise move in terms of employment prospects). I ran a discussion about this topic, libraries as queer spaces, and asked these librarians what they thought, and what their experiences were. One librarian, who used to work in a small town up north (sorry, I can’t remember where), said that they had a problem for a while, where a number of books, from the 100s-320s started to go missing. These tended to focus on subjects such as magic and Wiccan practices, Islam, paranormal activities, divorce, and sexuality. After some time, it was eventually found that the books were being stolen by a local, right wing, religious leader. When the case was given to the police, the minister later stated that he had sent a number of letters to the library, that some books were offensive, and should be taken of the shelves in the name of ‘public decency’. Complaints like these are almost always ignored. A friend of mine works for the City of South Perth, recently said that they received a complaint about the book, The God Delusion (Dawkins, 2008).The patron insisted that the book should be shelved under fiction.
And if there is one thing almost every librarian cannot stand, its censorship.
King and King
Which is why, last year, I was shocked when I saw a children’s picture book, which featured a same sex relationship, with a warning label on the front. The book, King and King (L. de Haan & Nijland, 2003), talks about a king who had to marry, so his mother sends for all the princesses in the world to come and visit. All the princesses bore him, until one day, a princess arrives, accompanied by her brother, and the King falls in love at first sight. A vibrant, and colourful picture book, translated from its original langue, Dutch, there are five copies within the WA library system. There is also a sequel, King and King and Family (L. D. Haan, Mijland, & Nijland, 2004), which depicts the two Kings adopting an orphan girl on their honeymoon. There is no sex, not nudity, no swearing, yet there was a label on the front cover, stating “Readers should be aware that this book is concerned with same sex relationships.” I was gobsmacked. I mean, this is essentially a warning sticker! I have previously worked within the WA Public Library System, in Kalgoorlie, and I know that the staff there would have never considered putting a warning label on picture books. As it stands, I have done research in the past on queer picture books, and this is the one and only time I have seen such a warning on any of them. Not even on the book’s sequel! Had it been a small genre sticker, such as an inverted pink triangle, or a rainbow, they it wouldn’t have been such an issue. Parents could see that the book dealt with queer issues, without the message being portrayed in a negative light. Believe me, if I ever become employed at that particular library, that is one policy I will ensure gets changed!
Visibility in general.
I dunno about anyone else, by when you see something, like an inclusive poster, or a rainbow flag in a public place, it can make a world of a difference to your day. When I was about 16, I was still living in Kalgoorlie, and I saw a car parked outside the video store, that had a rainbow bumper sticker. I was over the moon for days. My old church had a poster that stated ‘Everyone is welcome here’, that made my chest swell with pride every time I see it. When you have lived in an environment where being gay is something that is rarely acknowledged, you appreciate these little moments so much more. And I appreciated everything my local library did to make their venue as inclusive and as welcoming as possible.
Following last year’s spate of suicides in the US, blogger Emily Lloyd urged people to become more visible as queer-friendly within their libraries (Lloyd, 2010). Sharing her own story of coming out, to herself and everyone else, she made of point of expressing how much hope a little visibility can give. Now a librarian, she wears this button on her lanyard at all times. I actually went online and got the same ones (available from Zazzle and CafePress), for the same reason. All it take, is for one young person to see it, and know they are not alone, and it is worth it.
There was a time, when I could claim that I had read every young adult queer lit book within the WA library system. I would spend hours, trawling through the internet, looking for titles you could order in from other libraries. By this time, the library was my second home, and I knew the staff pretty well, but they never once commented on the types of books I was reading. Eventually, they must have noticed my particular interest in this genre of literature, and the Head Librarian asked if I would write up a list of recommended titles so she could order some for the local collection.
As part of the library profession, we generally take privacy very seriously. In 2005, a Connecticut library took the FBI to Court when it was demanded the library release private borrower information about certain people they were investigating (Lichtblau, 2005). The FBI eventually withdrew their demands, but that doesn’t change the fact that a number of librarians were facing a jail sentence, if they did not win the case. For the most part, librarians take personal privacy very seriously, which can have a significant impact on the young gay person in a county town. In regional and rural towns, chances are, your local librarian knows your Mum. In my case, they got together regularly for a cuppa and gossip. Yet never once, did she reveal my borrowing habits, no matter how much my mother tried to pry. I believe that this is something libraries need to be more vocal about. Doing so would help patrons build confidence in their library staff and the young gay kid in a country town
wouldn’t have to live in fear that if he checks out Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez (Sanchez, 2003), his Mum isn’t going to find out the next day.
Libraries celebrating Pride
While I haven’t seen this happening in Australia, public libraries in other parts of the world, particularly the US, are getting in on the fun during their Pride season. In 2008, Oakland Public Library in California (“Oakland Public Library Celebrates LGBT Pride Month with Lavender Scrolls, Family Storytime,” n.d.) held inclusive Story Time, which features queer picture books for children aged 2 to 5. They also ran a special project, called the Lavender Scrolls Project, which illustrated the lives of eight queer elders from their local community, and displayed them in the library for the duration of Pride. This sort of project and activities could easily be replicated in Australia, in any number of libraries. In my experiences, public libraries are forever looking for different themes for their display cabinet. In Kalgoorlie, if all else fails, they did a display on mining, or on the Goldfields. Surely it can’t be too hard to print up a few pictures, and set out a few books about sexuality.
Another library that is a shining example of how they can be as queer-inclusive as possible is the San Antonio Library, in Texas. For that area, June is Pride month, and their various activities include talks from local activists, queer themed movie screenings, writing workshops with queer authors, and a community forum about workplace equality (San Antonio Public Library, 2011). They even have a separate web-portal for their queer resources, so that users can browse this particular aspect of the library’s collection on their own, ensuring user discretion and privacy. They even tweet out links to It Gets Better Videos. Regardless of what you think of the campaign itself, the fact that a public library is both supporting and advertising it is an amazing thing. In fact, it you search It Gets Better library, you will find a plethora of public libraries, whose what have compiled videos of their own.
What can you do? – Patrons
So, what can we do? If we aren’t librarians ourselves, we are limited in our capacity to influence the decisions made at our librarians, but we can influence them none the less. A few weeks before pride, ring up your local public library, and ask if you can use their display table during Pride. See if you can get a queer non-for-profit group behind you, so you can cite the community involvement aspect. When setting up your display, think carefully about what posters or leaflets you want to use. As much as I hate to say it, if you are in a particularly conservative area, such as a regional or rural, try and avoid the condoms and too much sex info. You can guarantee the library will receive complaints. And while it is unlikely to be taken down early, the library might not be so keen to host your display again. Remember, libraries are almost always run by your local government. In country areas, this is more likely to be a highly conservative old bloke, elected on the basis that he is a ‘local’. And if any of you have read the article in the reader, titled “The only gay in the village”, you will understand that being a country local is not always the best of things.
Back to your display table, make sure you have all your materials ready. As well as leaflets and posters (keep the posters PG rated
mind), try and source a number of books from your library that are queer themed. If a librarian is setting up the display, and not you, make sure you compile a list of queer resources to give them, emphasising they carry all those items within their local collection. Also, try and have a range of sources, including Young Adult novels, non-fiction books with advice on coming out, or for parents of gay children and DVDs. Chances are you will find at least one queer movie within your library. Is possible, include a children’s picture books. Believe me, gay parents love these, and there are more out there than you think. One of my favourites is called And Tango Makes Three, (Richardson & Parnell, 2005) based on the true story of the two gay penguins in the New York Zoo, and how they hatched and raised the chick known as Tango.
What can you do? – Library staff
And what if you work in a library? That depend on how ‘out’ you want to be, either as queer, or an Ally. If you are happy with being out, then go all out, and wear a rainbow badge, or a wristband. Have a photo of you and your partner on your desk. Write up reading lists of queer books, and source some Pride posters to hand around your library. Make sure there are leaflets around for your next rally for equal marriage. If you see a young person get out a queer themed book, and your gaydar is going mad every time you look at them, give them an encouraging smile, or even comment that the particular book they are getting out is very good. It will amaze you just how far something like that will go to a teenager’s self-esteem.
If you are not comfortable being out in your workplace, then there is still some things you can do. Suggest titles to whoever orders new stock, that have queer primary or secondary characters in them, but aren’t necessarily queer themed books. A good suggestion is Laurie R. King, who writes detective books, whose lead character just happens to be a lesbian.
If you don’t mind being a bit sneaky, attach queer genre labels to some books in your collection. Slip a couple of pamphlets about your local queer organisations into your community information display.
For the most part, most librarians a generally pretty open minded, and somewhat library people. Increasingly so, librarians are speaking out for freedom of speech, and access to information. It is an integral part of the library profession. This openmindedness often has the capacity to translate into being a queer friendly venue, and for the most part, all it takes is a little push in the right direction. Some American libraries have set a very high standard in inclusiveness, and it is time that Australia caught up. For that to happen, it takes people who are willing to take steps, to ensure that their local library can be as welcoming as possible. This is especially needed in rural and regional libraries, as more often than not, the library is the only place available for our young people to go. As Harvey Milk said, “You gotta give them hope”. Libraries have the capacity to give hope to our queer youth. And when there is nothing else, libraries and the internet are all they have.
Dawkins, R. (2008). The God Delusion. Mariner Books.
Haan, L. D., Mijland, S., & Nijland, S. (2004). King & King & Family. Tricycle Press.
Haan, L. de, & Nijland, S. (2003). King and King. Tricycle Press.
Oakland Public Library Celebrates LGBT Pride Month with Lavender Scrolls, Family Storytime. (n.d.). .
Richardson, J., & Parnell, P. (2005). And Tango Makes Three. Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing.
Sanchez, A. (2003). Rainbow Boys. Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing.