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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

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ISC 12. Barriers to GLBT Library Service in the Electronic Age


Over time, various terminology has been applied to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons. While the term, homosexual, has long been eschewed as too clinical by gays and lesbians themselves, it continues to appear in publications by heterosexuals. Both queer and lesbigay (and the more inclusive lesbigatr) have come and gone from popular parlance. When citing another resource in this article, I will be using the terminology employed by that particular publication.

Additionally, the resources cited may vary in regard to their inclusiveness of these groups. Some publications only focus on gays and lesbians some on gays, lesbians, and bisexuals others on gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons and still others on gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered, and questioning persons (ie people questioning their sexual identity). As with terminology, inclusiveness is time-bound and based on whatever is politically correct or in vogue for that time. And likewise, the level of inclusiveness can also be dependent upon whether the article has been written by insiders or outsiders. Whenever I cite another resource in this article, I will be mentioning only the groups included in that particular publication.

And finally, throughout this article I will be using the abbreviation GLBT, or variations thereof such as LBGTQ, etc all currently in vogue both in terms of terminology and inclusiveness.

Historical context

In 1994, Cal Gough and I wrote a chapter on Gay and Lesbian Library Users: Overcoming Barriers to Service for a book on multiculturalism in libraries. Seven years later ... how have we fared? To gain a better understanding of the background against which our chapter was written, lets examine its historical context.

In the early 1990s, here in the United States, it seemed that the next big civil rights battle would be fought in the arena of gay and lesbian rights. In 1992, voters in my current home state of Colorado passed the controversial constitutional Amendment 2 the provisions of which would enjoin any state government unit from adopting policies prohibiting discrimination against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Ultimately in 1996, the US Supreme Court declared Amendment 2 unconstitutional. Other major issues of the time concerned the hotly debated dont ask, dont tell policy of the military and the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Although we predicted in our chapter that the 1990s would be to LBGT civil rights as the 1960s were to African-American civil rights, very little progress has actually been made in the US. The one notable exception, Vermonts civil union bill, stops far short of bestowing the same rights on same-sex couples as those enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. Other places in the world have fared much better. In 1996, South Africa became the first country in the world to protect gay rights in its constitution, and, in 2000, the Netherlands became the first country to permit full-fledged marriages between same-sex couples, complete with divorce guidelines and broader adoption rights.

Misinformation and Prejudice

In regard to library services, of the various barriers we addressed in our chapter seven years ago, the biggest obstacles we must contend with continue to be those of misinformation and prejudice. Many librarians have never questioned the heterosexism that pervades library services, policies, and collections. In fact, a 1996 article surveying 465 library school graduates found that almost half (47.7%) had not received any information about GLBT issues in their library school curricula. Additionally, since ALA leadership has rarely produced spokespersons advocating for GLBT library users and workers, and, since most programming concerning GLBT issues has been offered by such special interest groups as the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Round Table, the vast majority of ALA attendees are not exposed to GLBT concerns through involvement in their national professional association. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that so many librarians are indifferent or unaware of the needs of this particular library constituency.

Stereotypes and myths still exist. As recently as this past November, a local school librarian told me that there were no LBGT students in her school and therefore no need to collect in this area. Studies prove otherwise. A 1999 report shows that between 2% and 4.5% of students will probably identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual when they are in high school, which means between 1400 to 3550 students in a school district of 70,000 students (roughly the size of the Denver Public Schools district). And if you add in those who say they have been harassed because someone thought they were lesbian, bisexual, or gay, the figures jump to between 4.9% and 8.1% or between 4830 and 5610 students.

Furthermore, in building collections and designing services, many librarians (including our colleague above) do not understand or take into account that the constituencies we serve are much broader than LBGTQ users themselves. One study shows that in a typical classroom of thirty students, eight students (27% of the class) will be either lesbian, gay, or bisexual themselves, have one or more lesbian, gay, or bisexual siblings, or one or more lesbian, gay, or bisexual parents. Other constituencies to consider include professionals dealing with the community (eg social workers, attorneys, doctors, teachers, etc) and students researching papers.

The effects of our colleagues misinformation could well go beyond doing a disservice to the LBGTQ students in her school, it could prove to be lethal! Suicide rates are extremely high among young people who are questioning their sexuality; plus such students are more likely to drop out of school, become homeless due to rejection by their families, or become substance abusers. Feeling isolated and confused, and often dealing with shame, abuse, and violence, these students need access to affirmative information and materials rather than succumbing to the miseducation of their peers or the misinformation of those in authority.


A longstanding contention regarding LBGT library service has been the lack of availability of LBGT materials in libraries. Although there has been an enormous growth in LBGT publishing over the last two decades, studies continually show that library holdings fall far short of publishing output. A poll of 250 public and academic libraries conducted by Library Journal in 1995 showed that 14% of the libraries had no holdings of LBG materials while 76% held fewer than 150 titles this despite an estimate that 975 titles had been published in the preceding year. A 1998 study examining the holdings of LBGT classic and award-winning books in major public libraries in the US and Canada found that on average the libraries surveyed held approximately three quarters of the 222 titles examined. While this shows some improvement over the earlier study, one must question why the holdings were not higher considering that the titles in essence formed a LBGT core list. Turning to periodical holdings, a 1996 study found that only 17% of the 92 journal titles examined were held by more than 26 OCLC libraries. These statistics show that LBGT materials continue to be under-selected in libraries.


Another barrier that we addressed in our chapter was censorship. During the last decade, censorship was one of the most pervasive issues in US school and public libraries. Between 1990 and 1999, 497 of the 5,718 challenges recorded by or reported to the American Library Associations Office for Intellectual Freedom were for materials with a homosexual theme or promoting homosexuality. And two of the ten most challenged books of that decade were GLBT books: Daddys Roommate (number 2 on the list) and Heather Has Two Mommies (number 9 on the list).

However, filtering access to the Internet, undoubtedly the most predominant censorship issue today, was not even mentioned in our chapter seven years ago. One of the most ferociously debated topics to hit the library world, filtering concerns the use of blocking software to restrict access to objectionable sites on the Internet. As recently as mid-December 2000, the US Congress passed the Childrens Internet Protection Act (CIPA) which mandates that libraries and schools receiving certain types of federal funding must adopt and enforce Internet safety policies accompanied by a technology protection measure (read: filter) to block access to obscene pictures and any other materials considered harmful to minors. However, as one may suspect, just what constitutes objectionable is open to interpretation. And even if the definition were clearly agreed upon, to date no filter is 100% effective in filtering out every site that meets the set guidelines. Additionally, since many filtering programs restrict access by targeting specific words within web sites without regard to context, many worthwhile or inoffensive pages are unintentionally blocked from use, while conversely many objectionable pages remain accessible. This situation, of course, has broad implications regarding LBGTQ information on the Internet. Many LBGTQ people turn to the Internet for information and support in what they perceive to be a safe, discrete, nonjudgmental, and anonymous setting. In fact, the Internet has become a virtual lifeline to many LBGTQ community members in isolated areas and situations. The use of filters in public and school libraries effectively shuts off this lifeline, creating additional barriers between LBGTQ users and the information and services they seek.

Bibliographic Access

Access to more traditional forms of information, including books and periodicals, has had its ups and downs over the past seven years. It sustained a major blow when Sandy Berman resigned his position at Hennepin County Library in the aftermath of the administrations controversial decision to discontinue its innovative and socially-sensitive cataloging program upon joining OCLC in 1999. Berman had long advocated for improvements in subject access, encouraging the creators of The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), the premier subject scheme in the US, to overcome their long history of employing outdated, obscure, and socially-insensitive terminology. His writings and work have led the way to substantial enhancements in this area. LCSH often cites the headings created by Hennepin when updating or creating new subject headings concerning LBGTQ terminology. However, while the void left by the absence of Berman and the Hennepin records will be difficult to overcome, one mitigating factor is the Library of Congress SACO program, which, among other things, solicits proposals for new subject headings from practitioners in the field.

Another bibliographic access barrier we discussed in our previous work related to periodicals. The context of that discussion took place in a primarily print environment where the major barrier was the lack of indexing resources available for lesbian and gay periodicals. This assertion was reinforced by a 1996 study demonstrating that only 22% of the gay and lesbian titles listed in a standard reference resource were included in eight mainstream indexing and abstracting tools. The debut in 1998 of NISCs Gay & Lesbian Abstracts, which is devoted exclusively to indexing LBGT publications, provided increased access to LBGT periodicals and other publications.

However, in the years that have ensued since writing our chapter, the very nature of periodicals, from acquisitions to format to access, has changed dramatically. Much of our periodical literature is now available in aggregated electronic collections, many of which were purchased through consortia. Indexing is still an important consideration in locating information, but todays users have additional concerns including, among others, identifying which aggregator includes the periodical in question and determining the extent of the digitized publication. Because of the hefty price tags associated with databases, financial expediency is a major determinant in their contents, from selection of titles by aggregators to their purchase by consortia. Information has become a commodity, and digitization and aggregation decisions will be based on the bottom line. This could have a devastating effect on the publication and distribution of marginal publications that appeal to small segments of the population, such as the LBGTQ community, for only those publications with the broadest appeal (read: marketability) will survive.


Todays LBGTQ library users face many of the same barriers discussed in our 1994 chapter. Although many public and academic libraries are engaged in developing their collections, compiling pathfinders and guides, and offering other types of services, LBGTQ users are still vastly underserved and library collections vastly underdeveloped. Some studies suggest that librarians may not be aware of resources that would help them improve these services and collections. Several tools exist to help librarians in this area. One resource, Library Q: The Library Worker's Guide to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Resources, is only a click away. This Website has been specifically developed as an aid to librarians working in the area of LBGTQ librarianship. Modeled after its bricks and mortar counterpart the friendly neighborhood library this Website contains both public and technical services oriented resources. Among these, one can find directories, bibliographies, checklists, and other resources compiled by Library Q staff, as well as links to a myriad of resources developed by library workers, bibliophiles, and other experts. Another useful web page, Indexes to Gay/Lesbian Periodical Articles, compiled by Polly Thistlethwaite, offers guidance on which periodicals are indexed by which databases. For those interested in subject headings, theres the San Francisco Public Librarys wonderful guide to Finding GLBT Materials in the Library. Additionally, electronic discussion lists, such as GAY-LIBN and Lezbrian, offer librarians opportunities to network with those active in the field, as do such web pages as Directory of GLBT Librarians and Library Workers on the Internet and Who's Who on LEZBRIAN? A List of Out Lesbian and Bisexual Library Workers.

Ellen Greenblatt
Auraria Library, University of Colorado at Denver
January 2001


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