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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 12. Changing times: information destinations of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in Denver, Colorado


Historically, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community has been an underserved population by libraries. This study surveyed the Denver (CO) LGBT community about information needs during and after the coming out process and how various destinations compared in the provision of LGBT information. Results showed that the Denver LGBT community was more likely to use the community center and LGBT bookstores than the library when seeking LGBT information. While some of the Denver survey results support findings from earlier surveys, some new trends not previously evident (such as the Internet) are examined. Bisexual and transgender respondents were underrepresented in the results, so most findings pertain to lesbians and gay men.


In the literature of library and information science, the information needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (hereafter LGBT) community have been discussed infrequently, studied less, and never treated in their totality. To date, 3 studies have been published which discuss the information needs of lesbians and gay men (Creelman and Harris; Whitt; Joyce and Schrader). All of the studies focused on a single segment of the LGBT community: lesbians (Creelman and Harris; Whitt) or gay men (Joyce and Schrader). Due to the small number of studies, the geographic coverage of such research has been limited. In order to increase visibility of the information needs of the LGBT community, more studies of this nature must be performed throughout the library community. Populations that are not studied cannot be adequately served. Therefore, it was proposed to survey the Denver (CO) LGBT community about their choices of information destinations.

Since the survey was part of a capstone project for a library degree program, there were some constraints on time and funding that limited the scope of the project. This short survey did not include all topics of previous surveys, but tried to include new developments such as the Internet. Results were analyzed to determine how libraries compare to other information destinations for the LGBT community. Also, an examination of how LGBT patrons seek information will highlight the most popular access points and may suggest areas of weakness for different information agencies.

Literature Review

As mentioned previously, only three surveys that focused on lesbian and gay information needs have been published. Providing good library service to the LGBT community is dependent upon understanding the information needs of that community. It is hard to know if a librarys selection of titles is appropriate if the needs of that librarys LGBT community are unknown. The challenge is identifying members of the LGBT community so that they can be questioned about their needs. Unlike most other minority characteristics, sexual orientation is not readily visible to the passive observer. The three published surveys of LGBT information needs and information seeking behavior used different methods to reach the LGBT community. Creelman and Harris made contact through two lesbian community associations in two Canadian cities to identify initial participants, through whom additional participants were contacted for a total of 50 interviews (37-38). Whitt included a survey in a lesbian newsletter based in a North Carolina city and received a total of 141 responses out of 619, or 22.8% (277). Joyce and Schrader contacted a variety of gay community groups in Edmonton, AB, and collected a total of 46 surveys. Each studys population was limited to those who were comfortable enough with their sexual orientation to be a member of an LGBT group or on an LGBT mailing list, though varying degrees of anonymity still exist in those situations.

Creelman and Harris focused on the information needs of lesbians during the coming out stage, which is when they were coming to terms with their sexual orientation (37). Their findings showed that the survey participants were very aware of libraries as a source of information and that they relied on printed sources second only to other lesbians (40). Whitts study examined the information needs of lesbians during and after the coming-out process (277-279). The findings confirmed the importance of libraries during the initial stages of coming out, though libraries were still second to other lesbians in importance as an information resource (278). However, the survey shows that libraries often fail in meeting information needs after the coming-out stage due to dated or missing material (281-282). Bookstores and community resources are cited as alternative sources of information. Joyce and Schraders study found that the gay male participants ranked the library as the most significant information resources during the coming-out stage (28). Gay organizations and friends were respectively ranked second and third. Like the participants in Whitts study, the survey respondents were less happy with the library as an ongoing information resource due to lack of quality materials (35). All three surveys found that libraries played a significant or primary role in meeting the information needs of lesbians and gay men during the coming-out stage. The two surveys that addressed continuing information needs both reported some dissatisfaction with library resources.

Design of Survey and Implementation

The intent of this survey was to supplement the existing literature by examining a new geographic area (Denver), include both lesbians and gay men as well as bisexuals and transgendered persons in the survey populations, and include the Internet as an information resource. Since prior surveys had been limited to Canada and North Carolina, Denver would provide a new perspective from a heretofore-unstudied region. The inclusion of all members of the LGBT community would allow the needs of different segments of the population to be compared using the same data. Finally, though Joyce and Schrader did have some responses that mentioned the Internet as an information resource, the earlier surveys did not address the Internet since it was not a factor at that time.

Information destinations being ranked in the survey included libraries, bookstores (both general and specialty bookstores which cater to the LGBT community), the Internet, and the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Community Services Center of Colorado (hereafter the Center). The Center was a major partner in the distribution of the survey. The board of directors of the Center agreed to distribute some surveys with their February 2000 newsletter and would also make the survey available to groups that use the Center as a meeting place. The survey was included in 370 newsletters going to a selected postal code, which includes Denvers largest concentration of LGBT residents (the Capitol Hill neighborhood). Due to funding issues, surveys included in the Centers newsletter did not include return postage. Additionally, surveys were distributed to an LGBT group that does not meet at the Center, with the aim of including a population that might be unfamiliar with the Centers services. The methodology for collecting surveys was a combination of the tactics used by Whitt and by Joyce and Schrader (277; 25).


90 surveys were collected from groups at the Center, with another 13 returned from the mailing. The non-Center group completed 66 surveys. Altogether, a total of 169 completed surveys were collected for analysis. This number is comparable to the other surveys sample groups of 46, 50, and 141 (Joyce and Schrader; Creelman and Harris; Whitt). Out of the 169 respondents, there were 57 lesbians and 99 gay men. Since only five bisexuals and five transgender persons completed surveys, the results are not representative of those segments of the LGBT community. Three respondents did not indicate their sexual orientation.

Results of the survey were entered into a spreadsheet and analyzed using the SPSS software package. Some questions did not get the intended response and the results had to be modified from the original design. For one question about the coming-out process, not all respondents followed directions to rank the services in terms of usage, so all responses were collapsed to indicate just that the service was used.

Respondents were asked about the degree to which they were out to friends, family, and co-workers, using a continuum of all, some, or none. The results are in Table 1. Most respondents were comfortable enough with their sexual orientation to share it with other people in some aspect of their lives.

The next table (see Table 2) shows the responses to a question about the information resources they used during the coming-out process. As discussed earlier, rankings were collapsed to indicate usage since results were inconsistent in the survey population. Although the other category had some repeated entries for therapists, P-FLAG (Parents, Friends, and Families of Lesbians and Gays), and bars, there were not enough of any single entry to be significant. Responses have been broken down for lesbians and gay men to examine differences and to facilitate comparison with the other studies. The small number of bisexuals and transgender respondents had no measurable effect on the results and are not included in this table. While the ranks for lesbians and gay men are fairly different, only one category contains a statistically significant (Chi Square = 0.049) difference: LGBT bookstores. Lesbians usage of LGBT bookstores as an information resource was second only to friends, while gay mens usage of LGBT bookstores was tied for fifth place. Other differences in ranking were not statistically significant. Libraries were the third most popular resource for gay men, but tied with the Center in sixth place for use by lesbians, which is why the overall rank of libraries is fifth (out of eight) as an information resource during the coming-out process.

Another section of the survey focused on information seeking behaviors. Respondents were asked to pick one resource as the best place to get LGBT information. Results for Table 3 include the entire sample (less 8 non-responses), since there were no statistically significant differences based on sexual orientation or gender. The Center and LGBT bookstores are the clear favorites, though the survey had a built-in bias towards the Center since the majority of surveys were distributed to people familiar with its resources. If the two bookstore categories were collapsed into one, they would have a slight edge over the Center, but neither group has a wide margin. The Internet has a solid position as a second tier choice, while general bookstores (if kept separate) and libraries are clearly not identified as primary destinations for LGBT information. If a persons sense of being out is considered when calculating the best destination for LGBT information, there are some subtle changes in the numbers. The results showed that respondents who indicated being out to all members of a category were even more likely to choose the Center as the primary LGBT information resource. However, respondents who indicated being out to only some members of a category were more likely to prefer an LGBT bookstore as their primary information resource. Since the majority of respondents in every out category chose all (see Table 1), their preferences affected the total samples results.

The next set of questions in this section is concerned with the way LGBT people seek LGBT information in a particular setting. Respondents were asked to select one option for each resource. Since there were no statistically significant differences between lesbians and gay men, both categories have been combined in Table 4.

The only difference of any size was in LGBT bookstores, where lesbians were slightly more inclined than gay men to browse the shelves. Since some respondents did not indicate a preference for all categories, percentages do not add up to 100%. Information seekers are more likely to ask a person in environments that are explicitly LGBT-friendly (the Center & LGBT bookstores). General bookstore users are most likely to browse the shelves for LGBT items. Library patrons are most likely to use the catalog, which highlights the importance of using current and accessible language when cataloging items. When a persons sense of being out was factored into the preferences, those more likely to ask a person about LGBT information were also more likely to be out to more people. In almost every category, respondents who had indicated that they were out to all were more likely to ask a person than were respondents who indicated that they were out to only some. The number of responses in the out to none categories were too low to impact the total samples results.


The findings of this study resonate with many of the earlier studies results but also suggest that some new trends might be occurring. In the coming-out phase, the primacy of friends as an information resource confirms the findings of Creelman and Harris (39) and Whitt (278). However, libraries are not nearly as important when compared with LGBT bookstores. Whether the areas studied by Creelman and Harris and by Whitt did not have LGBT bookstores is unclear, but it seems like the Denver-area LGBT bookstores played a significant role in the coming-out process of lesbians. The experiences of gay men in the Denver survey were more like those of the lesbians in Creelman and Harriss study, with the greatest resource being friends and a secondary (though significant) role assigned to the library. While the rankings of Joyce and Schraders study do not exactly match the coming-out experiences of Denver gay men, there are still some similarities with regard to bookstores and the Internet.

The general disappointment with LGBT resources in libraries that was documented in the earlier studies is reflected by the librarys low standing as a resource for LGBT information in the Denver study. The rapid growth of the Internet since Joyce and Schraders study has had a clear impact on the way LGBT information is pursued. Based on the information-seeking behaviors preferred by the Denver respondents, the Center and LGBT bookstores are selected as the best resources because users are not afraid to ask questions about LGBT information. Another reason for the popularity of the Center and LGBT bookstores may be related to issues of comfort and safety. The final question of the survey asked if respondents had experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation when using these resources. No one indicated problems at the Center or at an LGBT bookstore, but 18 people (10.7%) reported harassment while on the Internet and 8 people (4.7%) reported harassment at both general bookstores and libraries. These numbers are a reminder that discrimination can be a factor in meeting or not meeting the information needs of a community.

For libraries, the largest concern is to find out why it has become the place of last resort for LGBT information. With so much LGBT information available over the Internet that can be accessed anonymously, libraries would be hard-pressed to compete if current levels and quality of materials and outreach stay the same. On a positive note, the Denver Public Library recently received a $30,000 award from the Gill Foundation (a Colorado-based LGBT philanthropic organization) to increase library materials by, for and about gays, lesbians and bisexuals. While this infusion of money for materials is welcome, having more materials does not necessarily translate into meeting the information needs of the LGBT community. If the low levels of library usage are due not only to not having enough materials, but also to harassment, poor access points, or inadequate public relations, then libraries will never learn this without performing more surveys of this kind. Without knowledge of the LGBT community and their information needs, libraries will never be able to successfully meet the needs of all of their patrons.

Martin Garnar
Regis University, Denver, Colorado
December 2000


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