Improving LGBTQ* provision in your library: why and how to do it

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Did you look at the title of this post and think, “This isn’t relevant to me?” If so, please read on: this post is for you. If you looked and thought it was or might be relevant to you, please also read on: this post is for you too!

One of the key myths that forms a barrier to adequate LGBTQ* provision is the (incorrect) assumption that provision is not needed. In fact, there is a strong unmet need; this doesn’t just apply to public and school libraries, but to libraries and information services in many sectors.

About LGBTQ* people: who are our library users?

First, some definitions and a few quick stats (we’re librarians; we like an evidence base!) The acronym ‘LGBTQ*’ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer and/or questioning. The term ‘trans’ is an umbrella term for transgender and/or genderqueer people. And the asterisk on the end signifies inclusion of other queer identities which are sometimes overlooked, such as intersex and asexual people. 

It is very difficult to gather reliable data on the number of LGBTQ* people in the population, as people are often unwilling to disclose information on their sexuality and/or gender identity. LGB rights organisation Stonewall supports the government estimate that 5-7% of the population is lesbian, gay or bisexual, while the trans advocacy organisation GIRES suggests that around 1% of the population is gender-nonconforming to some degree. The number of people seeking medical assistance with transitioning to their true gender is also rising rapidly by around 20% a year. Thus, there is a substantial user population. Moreover, the vast majority of people – probably everybody – will come into contact with an LGBTQ* person at some point, whether they are aware of it or not. This could be a friend, parent, child, other relative, colleague, teacher, librarian – the list goes on!

But I don’t think anybody needs LGBTQ* information from my library…

Remember, it isn’t necessarily possible to recognise an LGBTQ* person, and not all LGBTQ* people live in Brighton or Manchester! Those people in more isolated areas may be all the more in need of accurate, positive information. In particular, young people who are LGBTQ*, or who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity, are unlikely to have a choice about where they live. Under the Equality Act 2010, it is illegal to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation or gender reassignment status; this could include discriminating through providing an inadequate level of service.

If you work in a public library, there are almost certainly LGBTQ* people in your local area, and if they aren’t coming in to the library, this may be because they don’t think the library provides any services for them. (In some cases, they may unfortunately be correct and services/collections may need to be developed; in other cases, it may be a matter of outreach and better marketing of existing services.)

Similarly, any school will have young people who are LGBTQ* or questioning their sexuality or gender identity. Contrary to what is sometimes believed, many LGBTQ* people become aware of their sexuality or gender identity before they reach the teenage years. Moreover, an increasing number of children are growing up in families with LGBTQ* parents, following recent changes in legislation which have made it easier for same-sex couples to adopt and secure parental rights. Research has found that homophobic bullying often starts from a very young age, so it is essential for primary schools as well as secondary schools to provide positive images of LGBTQ* people and families.

LGBTQ* provision is also important in academic libraries. Although not all institutions offer courses in gender/sexuality studies, LGBTQ* issues are relevant to a huge variety of other fields: sociology, education studies, psychology, geography, literature, to name but a few. Precisely because of this interdisciplinarity, LGBTQ* resources can sometimes ‘fall down a gap’ – conversations need to be had about whose responsibility it is to purchase these materials, and whose budget it comes out of. The library also has a role to play in contributing to a campus climate in which LGBTQ* people are visible and accepted. Recent research from Sheffield Hallam University has shown that university environments are not always as welcoming as they could be, and for many LGBTQ* young people, visible efforts at inclusion do make a difference when they are choosing what university to go to.

Other types of library are not exempt. 'A law librarian friend has recently begun to explore adding books on coming out and supporting a child coming out to the firm's health and wellbeing collection at their workplace (originally developed to provide support resources to lawyers experiencing stress).

Gender and sexuality can also be highly relevant in health contexts. Trans people may require information about medical transition (e.g. hormones and/or surgery), and research suggests that the mental and physical healthcare needs of trans people are frequently not met. LGB people also experience healthcare inequalities and recent research by Stonewall has identified negative attitudes towards LGBTQ* peopleamong a substantial minority of healthcare professionals. Health libraries thus have a role to play in providing information to LGBTQ* people themselves, as well as raising awareness among professionals of their legal duty to provide services to these populations, appropriate and sensitive service provision, and the healthcare issues involved. Furthermore, LGBTQ* healthcare professionals may also have specific information needs.

What can I do?

  • Work to make your library a welcoming space for LGBTQ* people. Put up ‘safe space’ posters, and work to ensure that all frontline staff are confident and respectful when dealing with LGBTQ* people, including those who are visibly gender-nonconforming. Frontline staff members arethe first point of contact with the library, so they can set the tone for the whole experience.
  • Think about how you collect demographic information – particularly on gender. Forcing library users to choose between ‘male’ and ‘female’ excludes non-binary/genderqueer people, and potentially other trans people whose gender presentation may not match their legal title. Add an ‘Other’ option, or replace the tick boxes with a write-in box. Moreover, think about why and whether you need this information – while you may want to collect information on gender anonymously as part of equal opportunities monitoring, is it necessary to ask library users to publicly declare this information when registering with the library?
  • Ensure that the library provides a broad range of resources to meet the needs of LGBTQ* users, or anyone who is interested in LGBTQ* topics. Public and school libraries may need to look outside the usual supplier relationships as mainstream library suppliers do not always provide an adequate range of LGBTQ* materials – recommended specialist bookshops include Gay’s the Word, or Letterbox Library for diverse children’s materials. Academic libraries should check whether key LGBTQ* journals are included in journal bundles (e.g. Journal of Homosexuality; Transgender Studies Quarterly; Journal of Bisexuality).
  • Think about where to locate and how to promote the material. LGBTQ* materials may be located in several different areas of the library, particularly in academic libraries. It is therefore a good idea to provide finding aids to help users find the materials they require (especially as not all users will feel comfortable asking a staff member). Some libraries have used LibGuides to promote their LGBTQ* materials; here is an example from Leeds Beckett University
  • Public libraries may wish to consider having a separate LGBTQ* collection, although this has both pros and cons. Even if a separate collection is not desired by the local LGBTQ* community, this should not prevent the library from having displays of LGBTQ* materials, for example to tie in with Pride or LGBT History Month. Again, finding aids such as booklists or lists of online resources can help users to find the information they want.
  • Offer assistance with searching. Controlled vocabulary terms may differ from the natural-language terms used by LGBTQ* people themselves (or indeed by other searchers). Again, it may be necessary to provide guidance online as searchers may not always be willing to identify themselves to a librarian.
  • Work with relevant groups. In a public or school library, this could be community or youth groups; in an academic library, link up with the student LGBT society and with the LGBT staff network, if one exists. If you work in a special library, check if there is a relevant LGBTQ* professional organisation (e.g. the Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association). This can be a great way of promoting the library as well as contributing to an inclusive and welcoming environment. National advocacy groups such as Stonewall and Gendered Intelligence can also provide advice, training and/or resources.
  • If you use filtering software, check that it does not block access to LGBTQ* sites. Filtering software is imperfect and can prevent access to legitimate and important sites while still failing to block those which are considered to be undesirable. Some LGBTQ*-related terms are likely to fall foul of keyword filters.
  • Think about how you will deal with a complaint if one arises. My own research on LGBTQ* provision for children and young people in public libraries suggested that complaints were relatively unlikely, although anecdotal evidence suggests they do occur in school libraries. Complaints should not prevent libraries from providing appropriate materials and a welcoming environment to all their users. A written stock policy, which mentions intellectual freedom rights and/or the need to provide materials to all users including LGBTQ* people, is useful for supporting your argument in the event of a complaint. If you work in a school, it is a good idea to talk to the Senior Management Team about intellectual freedom and inclusion early on, to get them on-side before any complaint occurs.

Of necessity, this has been a rather brief overview of the field. Below, I have provided a selection of useful resources and further reading. If you have undertaken a particular project to improve LGBTQ* provision in your library, or if you have suggestions for other resources, please let us know in the comments!

More resources and reading

The Network (Social Exclusion Action Planning Network) – shares resources, information and good practice to challenge social exclusion in the cultural sector

IFLA LGBTQ Users Special Interest Group

GLBT Round Table of the American Library Association. Among other activities, the GLBTRT  produces the Rainbow Book List of recommended resources for children and teens, and the Over the Rainbow book list for adults.

Inclusive Minds – a collective of consultants and campaigners working to improve diversity in children’s literature

Chapman, Elizabeth L. (2013) No more controversial than a gardening display? Provision of LGBT-related fiction to children and young people in UK public libraries. Library Trends, 61(3), 542-568.

Greenblatt, Ellen (2011). Serving LGBTIQ Library and Archives Users: essays on outreach, service, collections and access. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Naidoo, Jamie Campbell (2014) The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children. Chicago: ALSC

Martin, Hillias J. and Murdock, James R. (2007) Serving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Teens: a how-to-do-it manual for librarians. Chicago: Neal-Schuman.

Vincent, John (2014) LGBT People and the UK Cultural Sector: the response of libraries, museums, archives and heritage since 1950. Farnham: Ashgate.

Waite, Jessica (2013) To what extent do public libraries in the UK provide adequate resources for trans people? Sheffield: University of Sheffield.

Walker, Janine and Bates, Jo (2013) Developments in LGBT provision in secondary school library services since the abolition of Section 28. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science. OA version available here

See an expanded resources list here.

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Image source: "Rainbow Flag" by QThomas Bower, used under CC BY 2.0 / Original cropped and resized

About the author

Elizabeth L. Chapman (Liz) has just completed her PhD on the provision of LGBTQ* fiction to children and young people in public libraries at theInformation School, University of Sheffield. She now works as an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Education, Childhood and Inclusion at Sheffield Hallam University. She has previously worked as a librarian and library assistant in Enfield and Cambridgeshire, and tweets as@lgbtlibrarian.


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