In 2018 I undertook my Thesis as part of my Master’s in Library and Information Studies, focussing on LGBT+ provision in school libraries. The original focus and aim was to examine the LGBT+ provision in school libraries from the perspective of the librarian; to explore how far external/internal limitations affect LGBT+ provision; budget restrictions, external influences (parents/teachers/governors), the availability of age-appropriate resources and resources that covered all the identities within the spectrum.
One area of research, which did not make it into the published article, was the area of ‘access vs promotion’. A topic looking at the methods used by librarians to put users in contact with LGBT+ resources or to make the pupil body aware of what was on offer. Unlike some of the other areas hindering LGBT+ provision, this area largely comes under the librarian’s sole care – the question of how to connect students to LGBT+ resources, if the librarian was lucky enough (considering the above limitations and more), to have any.
The research revealed several methods that librarians use to connect their LGBT+ resources with users. These methods are some of the many that are outlined in suggestions/guidance, for example, resources from non-profits – such as Educate and Celebrate or Stonewall, in professional organisation spheres such as CILIP and its groups – SLG or YLG, in other library groups – such as SLA and on more informal networks – such as SLN.
- Easy to do
- Can incorporate a mix of resources, online, posters, books, links…
- Can disperse them throughout the year
- Books can be included without any other signposting
- Can double up with another theme to reduce the ‘stigma’ of picking a resource up
- Can be in prominent locations or time slots in the year
- Can often lead to inter-department crossover/curriculum tie in, in turn creating more opportunities for them to be displayed
- Resources can often be tenuously linked to the topic, to crowbar them in
- Displays are by nature temporary, so books without any other signposting cannot be found again
- The theme it may double up with could be damaging or hold its own stigma (e.g. mental health week – the historical ties between Mental Health and the LGBT+ community have been largely negative)
- May not be utilised by those less willing to ‘out’ themselves at school, due to the prominent location
- Easy to do
- Can signal a book very clearly (e.g. rainbow stickers on the spine)
- Confidently ‘out’ users or those wanting an LGBT+ book can find these easily without having any contact with the librarian
- Signposts to anyone what the book is, those not ‘out’ may not pick up this book for fear of association, those not LGBT+ at all may fear the association too
- At what ‘level’ of representation do you sticker, e.g. a secondary character is LGBT+ but the protagonists are not?
- LGBT+ is a broad spectrum and one sticker can lead to a Lesbian user spending time looking through Gay fiction, even if they are looking for specific representation
- Non-LGBT+ pupils/staff may not pick up these books as they are being ‘targeted’ at one group, they may not see these resources as for them
- Can be specific with titling e.g. Lesbian Fiction/Trans MTF (male to female) fiction
- Can include a variety of titles in one space without any other signifiers e.g. spine labels, stickers
- Can potentially access without having to go through librarian/staff
- They cannot be exhaustive
- Censorship can play a part e.g. what is seen as age appropriate or contains other heavy themes e.g. suicide/self harm
- At what ‘level’ of representation do you include a book on a LGBT+ booklist, e.g. the protagonists parent is LGBT+ but the protagonist is not?
- Booklists with only secondary or stereotypical or tokenistic representation can do more harm than good
- The booklist can be very small, if you do not have many resources, again doing more damage than good to that user’s sense of worth
- You may have good knowledge (if you have the resources) of your stock, so can suggest suitable and tailored suggestions
- You may be able to filter out resources that would not apply e.g. not books about Transgender protagonist if the user is Lesbian and would like to read Lesbian fiction
- You can suggest more resources in the moment, e.g. if they have already read the author or series
- Relies on the user to approach the librarian
- Allyship is hard to project (it takes active work on the librarians’ part) for a user to feel comfortable approaching them
- These interviews may not offer the level of privacy that a user may want or expect, you may be overheard
- If the topic is on an area library staff are less aware of, it can highlight a lack of knowledge e.g. Non-Binary or Genderfluid topics
LMS (Library Management System) Labelling: search terminology and keywording
- A private method so users can search at their own pace
- Terminology can be specific and tailored e.g. Lesbian Fiction or Trans FTM (female to male) fiction
- LMS often allow booklist or keyword searching, allowing access to more resources from an initial search
- Requires users to be very aware of how to use the LMS to search
- Requires access to a device in order to search, how private are these if communal?
- Can use out-dated terminology and do more harm than good, e.g. Homosexual/transvestite (sometimes due to imported data from other locations)
- Users may not know that their search history is private or that this terminology exists to search for
- It can be time consuming to instigate
- Choosing what books to include e.g. gay secondary character
I think a mixed method approach to access and promotion of LGBT+ provision is necessary in all school libraries. It allows for the comparative pros and cons to balance one another out, leading to a more inclusive library that connects more users to LGBT+ resources.
Although LGBT+ provision has universally improved, it is not enough to rest on these laurels but rather to push toward even more inclusive practice. It is important to remember Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity as a protected characteristic, can remain a hidden minority, with no collection of this data at a school level (like is done for some disability/racial background). The onus remains on the LGBT+ person to identify themselves to those in authority. The one ‘out’ pupil will not necessarily be the only one, so catering and tailoring your service to those less likely to approach you will benefit everyone (including other minorities). This minority first approach will in turn benefit the majority group, who can also access these resources without them being segregated.
It is entirely possible, within any restrictions placed on us, to allow access and promotion using at least two of the methods mentioned in this piece, minimising the risk to and onus on the end user.
A few questions I suggest asking yourself about LGBT+ provision:
- Can they access the materials without having to interact with you (or library staff)?
- Can they access them at any time, or only when others/yourself is around?
- Are you using the methods you use now, for your ease or for your users’ ease?
- Have you thought about any negative implications of the methods you use? (e.g. mental health week being the only time LGBT+ resources appear)
- Do you buy these resources with only one subset of your users in mind? Why?
- If you rely on students coming to you, how do you make it abundantly clear you are an ally (a safe person)?
Verity Jones is a school librarian at Fettes College, Edinburgh. She has worked as a school librarian in the private and state sectors, in co-educational and single-sex, day and boarding school, and received her MA in Library and Information Science from University College London (UCL).