Intellectual Freedom for All: Developing LGBTQ Collections

As I was reading Candace Aiani’s article “International School Librarians Count: Current Issues in Intellectual Freedom and Access to Information,” in the Intellectual Freedom issue of Knowledge Quest, I thought back to my own experience defending intellectual freedom in the Dominican Republic last year, where I was the school librarian at an international school in Santo Domingo.

In a one-on-one meeting, my principal said, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to tell you, we can’t have any books in the library that promote being gay.”

The pronouncement seemed to come from nowhere, so I asked her to explain what she meant.

“Oh, well, of course we accept gay people! We accept gay people like we accept prostitution: we accept it, but we wouldn’t promote it in school.”

I was at a loss. Not only was this terribly insensitive (especially considering that we had out LGBTQ students at our school), but I had already done my book buying, and had purchased several fiction and nonfiction books with LGBTQ characters and themes. In fact, Malinda Lo’s Adaptation, which features a bisexual protagonist, was on display directly behind my principal’s head during this conversation. The issue was unresolved by the end of the meeting, so I spoke to some of my colleagues about the conversation. The next day one of those teachers spoke to the principal without my knowledge. He later told me that he explained to her that we want to prepare our students for the world, and LGBTQ people are part of that world.

Later, I got a call from my principal who wanted to “clarify” her comments, and tell me that of course, we would have books in the library about LGBTQ people. I don’t know if she reconsidered her comments or was embarrassed, but I don’t think her attempt to keep books with LGBTQ themes out of the library came from any personal prejudice. Like many administrators, she hoped to avoid controversy and potential complaints. Even librarians can fall into the same trap of self-censorship (although perhaps less consciously so), particularly in regards to LGBTQ-themed books.

In her article “2.5 Million Teens,” Wendy Rickman found that the majority of school librarians surveyed reported reluctance to purchase LGBTQ-themed materials. Another recent study in School Library Research found that on average only 0.4% of school library books were LGBTQ-related. The same study also found that school libraries had more LGBTQ fiction than nonfiction and biographies combined, however, a 2004 survey by Darla Linville found that LGBTQ teens valued finding LGBTQ informational resources in the library over fiction.

Similarly, as part of the National School Climate Survey, GLSEN has been asking LGBTQ students whether they can find LGBTQ resources in the school library since 2004. Unfortunately, in the most recent survey, less than half of students reported that they could find any LGBTQ resources in the school library, no better than 10 years ago.

The reluctance of school librarians to build strong a LGBTQ collection is understandable. I wasn’t surprised to read that both the librarians profiled in the Intellectual Freedom issue, DaNae Leu and Dee Ann Venuto, were defending books which had been challenged based on LGBTQ content.

In her column, AASL President Leslie Preddy wrote, “When our students enter their school library and work with their school librarian, they are all equal in the eyes of equitable access to information and intellectual freedom.” Providing equitable access to information means our LGBTQ students should see themselves reflected in the library collection, and that all students who visit the library see an accurate representation of the diversity in the world. This principle holds true for all grade levels; if certain ways of being or kinds of families are nonexistent or deemed “inappropriate,” students will learn to attach that stigma to themselves and others.

As the “conduit to equitable access to information,” school libraries cannot, in good conscience, attempt to avoid controversy by pretending that one portion of the population doesn’t exist. In Debra Lau Whelan’s School Library Journal article “Out and Ignored,” Ann Symons, former president of ALA and current board member of the GLBT Round Table, was quoted as advising taking a “proactive stance” to starting an LGBTQ collection by “building the collection you feel you need and dealing [with the controversy] later.”

However, there are strategies to develop an LGBTQ collection while protecting oneself against potential challenges. DeeAnn Ventuo wrote that in response to the challenge she faced, she has increased the justifications for her selection decisions. The Stonewall Book Award, presented by the ALA GLBT Round Table, has included a Children’s and Young Adult category since 2010. The GLBT Round Table’s Rainbow Books also regularly reviews books for children and teens and provides annual “best of” lists for librarians. The Lambda Literary Awards, which also celebrate excellence in LGBTQ literature, have recognized Children’s and Young Adult Literature since 1992. Increasingly, books with LGBTQ themes are also being recognized by mainstream literary awards: 2015 Printz Award Winner I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson and honor book Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith both contain LGBTQ themes. School Library Journal has a long history of covering LGBTQ topics and reviewing LGBTQ-themed materials. Not every book in the library will be an award-winner with glowing reviews, but these resources can help librarians justify their selection decisions by recognizing LGBTQ books as good literature.

The resources profiled in the Intellectual Freedom issue, such as the Intellectual Freedom Manual and the Code of Professional Ethics, can help librarians justify developing an inclusive collection and can help inform policy development at the school level. In Serving LGBTIQ Library and Archives Users, edited by Ellen Greenblatt, Alvin M. Schrader and Kristopher Wells provide detailed guidelines for school librarians in developing policies and practices. They recommend developing and approving policies that support inclusion and intellectual freedom, establishing inclusive selection guidelines, and framing policies and procedures for challenges in accordance with the ALA Library Bill of Rights.

Back in the Dominican Republic, a few months after my awkward conversation with my principal regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ books, the School Library Committee was working on revising policies. I added sexual orientation and gender identity to the protected identities enumerated in the library’s non-discrimination statement. All the members of the committee (including my principal) readily agreed to the addition.

Here in the U.S. I have found that familiarity with case law, such as the cases Theresa Chmara discusses in her article on First Amendment rights in schools, to be very empowering. Stuart Biegel traces the legal history of LGBTQ students and teachers in schools, and a number of the cases profiled are related to book challenges, often resulting with courts ruling in favor of protecting intellectual freedom.

There are a wealth of other resources available to school librarians to help better serve LGBTQ students. Serving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians by James R. Murdock and Hillias J. Martin includes special sections specific to school libraries. The ALA GLBT Round Table provides a series of professional tools, including bibliographies on topics such as same-sex parenting and supporting students, and I recently began writing “School Is In,” a monthly column on the GLBTRT news site related to LGBTQ topics in school libraries.

School librarians can also justify LGBTQ collections and better serve LGBTQ students by becoming familiar with LGBTQ issues in education and issues facing LGBTQ youth, such as homophobic bullying, heterosexism, and school safety. Gender and Sexual Diversity in Schools by Elizabeth Meyer provides a brief but informative introduction to LGBTQ topics in schools, as well as recommended resources for further reading. GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) provides research and educational resources for educators. The California Safe Schools Coalition has a variety research briefs, including research on LGBTQ students and school safety and the impact of LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum on school safety for all students.

I invite school librarians to examine their collections and consider whether the resources available accurately represent the roughly 10 percent of students who may identify as LGBTQ. As some of our most vulnerable students, LGBTQ students must be able to depend on their school libraries for their information needs. As LGBTQ lives and experiences become more visible in the news, entertainment and media, and cultural institutions, and as LGBTQ rights become a regular conversation at international, national, and local levels, all students have a right to accurate, unbiased information about the world around them.

Works Cited:
Hughes-Hassell, S., Overberg, E., & Harris, S. (2013). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ)-themed literature for teens: Are school libraries providing adequate
collections? School Library Research, 16.

Kosciw, J. G. (2004). The 2003 National School Climate Survey: The school-related experiences of our nation’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. New York: GLSEN.

Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Palmer, N. A., & Boesen, M. J. (2014). The 2013 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.

Linville, D. (2004). Beyond Picket Fences: What gay/queer/LGBTQ teens want from the library. Voice Of Youth Advocates, 27(3), 183-186.

Rickman, W. (2015). 2.5 million teens. Knowledge Quest, 43(5), 22-27.

Schrader, A. M., & Wells, K. (2011). Queering libraries and classrooms: Strategies to build inclusive collections and services for sexual minority and gender variant youth. In E. Greenblatt (Ed.), Serving LGBTIQ library and archives users: Essays on outreach, service, collections and access. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

Whelan, D. L. (2006, January). Out and ignored: Why are so many school libraries reluctant to embrace gay teens? School Library Journal, 52(1), 46-50.

Author: Elizabeth Gartley

Categories: Blog Topics, Intellectual Freedom

1 reply

  1. Elizabeth,

    As guest editors, Trina Magi and I hoped that the KQ intellectual-freedom themed issue would spark more conversation about the broad spectrum of access to information for all students. Thank you for sharing your experience with your principal and LGBT books. Her quotation (We accept gay people like we accept prostitution: we accept it, but we wouldn’t promote it in school.”) is priceless. I appreciated (and followed) your references and links to articles, reports, awards.


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