‘We Are Not Okay’

Supporting the LGBTQ+ community at the library

June 26, 2022

Rebecca Oxley, librarian at Prince George’s County (Md.) Memorial Library System Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

“Happy Pride,” greeted Rebecca Oxley, librarian at Prince George’s County (Md.) Memorial Library System. (PGCMLS). “It’s been a rough month, y’all.”

Oxley, along with fellow PGCMLS librarian Teresa Miller, co-presented “Queering the Library: Strategically Creating Space for the LGBTQ+ Community” on Sunday, June 26, at the American Library Association’s 2022 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Washington, D.C.

Throughout the country, a spate of high-profile challenges and attempts to ban or destroy LGBTQ+ books, including in bookstores and libraries, has garnered widespread media attention.

“Please check on your queer colleagues,” suggested Oxley to allies attending the program. “We are not okay.”

Not seeing a space for the LGBTQ+ community in PGCMLS’s 19 branches and pop-up locations, Miller, a recent transplant from a “red state to a blue state,” said she felt frustrated. The county has more than 967,000 residents, 21% of whom are teens or young adults.

“Teens have a lot of needs,” Oxley said, “and certainly queer teens have a lot of needs as well.”

Miller and Oxley got to work creating an LGBTQ+ work team to increase resources and programming for the community—both patrons and staff—and to integrate changes into the library’s culture. They made sure to align these goals with PGCMLS’s strategic focus areas.

When the pandemic hit, the library system had to shift its planning to a more virtual format. It created programming for young children and families (such as live virtual read-alouds) and for teens and adults (like an LGBTQ+ zine workshop).

As part of the overarching strategy, Miller and Oxley also prioritized training staff on serving LGBTQ+ customers in libraries. Training included information about why libraries should focus on their LGBTQ+ customers, best practices for library services, examples of notable LGBTQ+-friendly library systems, book and media lists, info about allyship, and resources for professional development.

Staff training was “a pretty big undertaking,” Miller said. There was some pushback, but “overall it was very positive and encouraging.”

Another goal was to bring attention to the LGBTQ+ community year-round, not just during Pride in June. This included looking at other celebratory months (like LGBTQ+ History Month in October) and localizing other celebrations (like Money Smart Week through the lens of LGBTQ+ financial planning).

Since 2019, the county has seen three brutal murders of Black trans women, Oxley said, prompting the creation of The Butterfly Project at PGCMLS’s Fairmount Heights branch. The project was specifically designed to help Black and Brown trans women with digital skills training and workforce development, including providing professional attire “to give people the dignity of choice,” Oxley said. Those in the LGBTQ+ community who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color are at most risk, she said.

For those who want to start their own LGBTQ+ work team, Miller and Oxley advised the following:

  • Find support among leadership
  • Be honest about your organization (including organizational weaknesses, workplace culture, and what customers are experiencing)
  • Set high expectations for staff and support them as they learn
  • Collaborate across departments and interest groups
  • Create a plan for backlash (“Very much on all of our minds right now,” Miller said)
  • Communicate impact
  • Celebrate your successes (let the community know that you’re a place of support)

To help build your case, Miller suggested reminding decision makers that LGBTQ+ people are part of every service area. Use data to back it up.

Miller strongly advised on pushing back against any counterarguments that LGBTQ+ content or discussion is inherently “adult” or “inappropriate,” and to remind leadership that queer kids exist, kids with same-sex parents exist, “and those kids deserve to see themselves represented in the library.”

Updated June 29, 2022.

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