By Ana Elisa de Campos Salles
Library workers everywhere, whether academic, public, special, or school share a certain pride: the ability to assist anyone who walks through their doors. We take all comers, and we help them in a variety of ways, directly or indirectly. We’ll help you find whatever it is you’re looking for and always maintain your privacy. No judgement, no questioning — unless you’re questioning. Then we’ll help you with that, too.
Library professionals have consistently ranked top of the list of professions people trust. I’m sure that has a lot to do with our ability to help folks find reliable information, but it also has a lot to do with the fact that we pride ourselves and are known for keeping people’s information and anything related to how they use our resources private. This is especially important for the younger queer folks who come to the library, some of whom may not yet know how to verbalize who they are. They may not be able to ask or discuss being queer with anyone they know for fear of being judged, or worse. They may not be able to fully express who they are for safety reasons, but like everyone else, they too, are searching for themselves in music, movies, and books. How can we make the library a welcoming and safe space for kids and teens to explore their identities without outing them or otherwise violating their privacy?
Let’s start with the subtle, the little things staff can incorporate into their behavior at work to let queer customers of all ages know you’re a trustworthy individual who will treat them with respect and will maintain their privacy.
Learn what your customers like to be called. Not their name. What they like to be called. Then use it. This may sound incredibly basic, but it’s so much more than kindness and good manners. There’s a difference between what someone is named and how they like to be called and for some queer folks, what they like to be called is so much more than just a name, it’s part of their identity, so please, make sure you extend this simple courtesy to everyone — and make them smile the next time you see them by calling them what they like to be called. By the way, if your library’s ILS is currently not giving customers the option to include their name and their preferred name, then please, advocate for that. Or just advocate for letting people use whatever name they want on their library account, regardless of what it says on their ID.
When you speak to someone in reference to someone else, and you don’t know how that someone else identifies, start from neutral. That is, use neutral pronouns: they, them, their. “Customer”, “patron”, “student”, and “client” are all equally neutral terms that can also be used: “Sam, can you please help that customer at computer four with printing?” “Val, can you help that student in the blue shirt format their essay?” Normalizing neutral pronouns is a powerful way of letting queer kids around you know you’re in the know. I like to think it’s also a great teaching moment for anyone else listening and a potential conversation starter with those who may not be aware of the impact using neutral pronouns can have.
If you’re into accessorizing and your place of work allows it, wear something that lets people know you’re at the very least an ally, if not queer yourself: colorful pins or stickers, rainbow jewelry or laces, that kind of thing. Wear a pronouns badge or pin with your preferred pronouns.
You may not think the above suggestions matter, but trust me, they matter. People from marginalized groups, such as queer folk and people of color have finely developed senses because they want to see themselves reflected in others. When they can’t or don’t find that, they want to know they are seen, welcome, and heard. They will pick up on what you’re trying to communicate. So you want to communicate that you’re there for them, even if it means standing back and giving them the space they need to seek out the information or entertainment they’re looking for on their own.
Because young queer users who are questioning or aren’t out may be especially hesitant to approach staff and ask for assistance, below are some things you can do to make sure these users can still find what they’re looking for in your collection without violating their privacy.
Post a nonfiction subject chart in the teen zone or areas of the library with high teen or young adult traffic with information on where to find information on health-related topics like cooking, eating well, finance, gender identity, personal grooming, safe sex and sexually transmitted infections, and sexual identity.
If you’re responsible for or have advocating power within your library hierarchy regarding the acquisition and withdrawal of items with queer content, exercise that power. If you notice that a certain title goes “missing” every time you purchase a new copy, keep purchasing it. If you spot any gaps in the collection related to queer life that may be of interest to your users and it fits your collection development policy, advocate for it. Don’t know if it’ll circulate? That’s an excellent reason to purchase these items and try.
Speaking of collection development: do not underestimate the power of counting in-house use of items. Those items with queer content you always find stashed in odd, out of the way shelves or corners when doing sweeps? They’re probably being fervently read by queer users who may not be out and therefore cannot be seen with the items. These items, or newer editions with similar content need to be kept because they are being used. It’s that simple.
There are plenty of other, more visible things library workers can do to let young queer users know they’re welcome, wanted, and can find community or simply the information they’re looking for at the library. From the simple, unspoken things we do to let them know they are welcome and wanted, to the more visual or deliberate displays and events we organize, there are many ways we can be there for our younger queer users. But it’s arguably even more important for us as library professionals to create safe, inclusive spaces for them to explore queerness, around them and in them, in private. Queer kids who can’t openly discuss what they’re feeling and thinking may feel isolated, alone, anxious, depressed, even suicidal. It’s critical we help them understand they are not alone and that what they are thinking and feeling is part of their development as a human being, just like the rest of us — at their pace, safely, comfortably, and privately. Even if they can’t bring themselves to say so, I guarantee your queer users will pick up on what you’re doing and will let you know just how much they appreciate it.
If you’re reading this and have additional suggestions that have proven successful, please share them in the comments section below.
If you need help figuring out how to advocate for any of the above suggestions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I’ll be happy to help and can also direct you to some awesome, dedicated offices within ALA, such as the Office for Intellectual Freedom and the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services, and of course, the Rainbow Round Table, formerly the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table.
Ana Elisa de Campos Salles is the Supervisory Librarian for the Children’s Library, Palo Alto City Library, California, Chair of the ALA’s Rainbow Round Table (formerly the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table), and Councilor-at-large. She is a 2011 Spectrum Scholar and a 2013 Emerging Leader.