Days after the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Anna Francesca Garcia, an education librarian at Kansas City Public Library in Missouri, sent a message to the local LGBTQ community. “You are not alone,” she wrote on her library’s website. “It is in our mission to help.” She offered the library as a place to “share your struggles,” but also as a confidential space for patrons who wished to “keep your challenges private” without fear of public exposure.
Garcia began wearing a safety pin on her lapel every day. A document she shared with colleagues explains that the symbol identifies the wearer as “a safe person for anyone to talk to regardless of their race, religion, gender, abilities, or sexual identity.” She distributed information on the Safety Pin Project to all nine branches of her library system, which serves more than 250,000 residents.
Because Garcia’s library doesn’t have a lot of books about people who identify outside of the gender binary, she posted signs explaining the concepts of gender-fluidity and other “nontraditional sexualities” for patrons. The response has been positive, she says: “I’ve gotten requests multiple times for more LGBTQIA book displays.”
Libraries have long been a place of refuge for LGBTQ people. “When I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I often felt like I needed to seek out sanctuary outside of my house, and the library was the first place I went,” says Camille Perri, author of the 2016 novel The Assistants. “It was a place that I could go and seek out information, and look for answers to questions that maybe I was too afraid to ask another person.”
Jamie Campbell Naidoo, an associate professor at the University of Alabama School of Library & Information Studies, says that libraries have traditionally offered the kind of privacy that hasn’t always been readily available. “Finding books or magazines about LGBTIQ people and having a place to read them without being harassed was very important to people before they had the internet, smartphones, or social media,” he notes.
Naidoo wrote Rainbow Family Collections, a handbook that helps librarians choose LGBTQ-friendly children’s books and resources. While exploring personal narratives about pre-internet LGBTQ life, Naidoo found the same phrase over and over: “the library saved my life.” Now, he’s researching a tougher question: do contemporary LGBTQ people have the same relationships with their libraries? While attitudes about LGBTQ rights have evolved, the change has not spread evenly.
“A lot of fear still exists among small-town library administrators and library staff,” says Rachel Wexelbaum. She’s an associate professor and collection management librarian at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, studying the role libraries play as safe spaces. “In small towns and rural areas, public librarians may still feel like they’re taking a risk when they make LGBTIQ book displays, let alone order any LGBTIQ resources.”
Early in librarian Sherry Machones’s career, in rural Wisconsin in 2009, she found that local teenage patrons “feel that they can’t go to any adult in our town with LGBT issues.” She kept her symbolism low-key: “I had to covertly advertise that I was a safe person to come to. There was a pink triangle on my office door.”
Machones now directs the Northern Waters Library Service, overseeing 28 libraries in rural Wisconsin. With her bird’s-eye view of different libraries in her state, Machones says, she’s realized that librarians still have a lot of work to do. “LGBTQ services and safe zones are pretty much nonexistent” in her region, she says. To convey inclusiveness, she suggests, librarians can create LGBTQ book displays, share pamphlets from helpful organizations, and provide materials on LGBTQ issues at library events.
Show of Support
Naidoo offers an additional suggestion: adopt what he calls “an inclusive badge” that can be displayed at all reference desks, on web materials, and in programming documents. His favorite example is Allie the Ally, a rainbow-colored paper doll celebrating LGBTQ people that has traveled the world through Tumblr photographs. Another is the “Libraries Are for Everyone” poster campaign, which reinforces inclusiveness in an array of languages; one design features a heart-shaped rainbow symbol.
In April 2016, the ALA’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table released “Open to All,” a toolkit for librarians with tips about LGBTQ outreach, programming, and collection development. Two months later, just before the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, the Pulse nightclub shooting occurred, casting a somber shadow over the event and reminding librarians of the urgency of these issues. At the convention, the ALA Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services helped arrange a memorial service for the victims.
One year after the tragedy, some fear that intolerance has increased. “We’re seeing an uptick and an increase in reported instances of violence and discrimination against people of all types,” says Peter Coyl, director of the Montclair (N.J.) Public Library, who chaired the GLBTRT during the 2016 ALA conference in Orlando and helped create the “Open to All” toolkit. Despite ongoing challenges, he remains optimistic about the library’s role as a haven.
“Libraries have always been open places for everybody,” Coyl says, stressing that librarians must repeat a clear and simple message for LGBTQ patrons: “You can come to the library and be safe.”