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social sciences

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Libraries and Archives  
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For many and questioning people in the process of coming out, the public library has often been the first source for information. Likewise, university holdings and glbtq archives have been crucial repositories for the restoration and reconstruction of hidden queer history. Both kinds of institutions remain vital sources for accurate information and for facilitating research into the history and culture of sexual minorities.


Pre-Stonewall era coming out stories often describe furtive searches through indexes and card catalogs under the heading "homosexuality" only to find one's intuitive sense of self distorted through vocabularies of perversion and criminality. Despite this, many found comfort in the knowledge that they were not alone.

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Those fortunate enough to discover literary reflections of their experience through writers such as William Shakespeare or Sappho or James Baldwin or Radclyffe Hall or who could sift through problematic terminology toward an objective viewpoint could begin the difficult process of identity formation.

Early on, gay activists recognized the importance of reliable information access. Librarians were the first American profession to establish a gay interest group. In 1970 a group within the American Library Association founded the Task Force on Gay Liberation. Eventually, it became the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Round Table (GLBTRT), chaired by lesbian activist Barbara Gittings from 1971 to 1986.

GLBTRT worked to expand the Library of Congress's subject headings to non-judgmental terms more reflective of glbtq experience. Pertinent headings, including "same-sex marriage," now number in the hundreds.

In Library of Congress cataloging "H" comprises the social sciences; "HQ" (9-471) designates topics concerning sexual life. Thus, general glbtq materials fall between HQ74 and HQ78. (In her speeches Gittings would joke that "HQ" wasn't a deliberate reference to "homosexual queer," although that provides a useful mnemonic.)

The Dewey Decimal System, still used by many public libraries, designates gay and topics in numbers beginning 306.76 (between prostitution and cross-dressing).

However, researchers must always look beyond these categories. Even neutral cataloging schemes cannot adequately reflect the interdisciplinary and multicultural nature of gay experience or identify veiled intimations of sexuality in biographical sources. Thus, Charles Morris urges librarians and archivists to be watchful for queer subtexts in all forms of literature and to cultivate awareness of them.

GLBTRT established the Gay Book Award to recognize gay-positive literature. The first recipient was Isabel Miller in 1971 for her novel Patience and Sarah. These honors are now known as the Stonewall Barbara Gittings Literature and Israel Fishman Non-fiction Book Awards. These and other awards, such as the Lambda Literary Award, Publishing Triangle Awards, and Gaylactic Network Spectrum Awards can serve as acquisition tools for expanding glbtq collections.

Trade publications periodically list core titles and review new offerings for glbtq youth and, more recently, for gay parents, a relatively new non-fiction category. E-book providers like and full-text databases like LGBT Life and other online resources that can supplement shelf offerings are also regularly reviewed for libraries.

Information access for glbtq teens remains one of the most critical issues in public library service. This at-risk but underserved group requires unbiased information on HIV/AIDS and other STDs as well as positive and realistic role models in biography and fiction. Direct and easily-navigated links to unbiased sexual health information from a library's teen-oriented web pages can literally save lives. Advocates for Youth, Planned Parenthood, and Nemours Foundation offer good sexual health information sites. The Internet Public Library also maintains a list of online resources for teens on health and sexuality.

Many public libraries compile reading lists for glbtq teens, and their prominent placement helps make the library a welcoming place for glbtq youth. The Oakland, California Public Library, for example, identifies glbtq materials in its circulating collection with rainbow stickers on the book spines.

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A group of materials held at the archives of the GLBT Historical Society of Northern California in 2010.
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