Getting "those books" into Your Local Library

National Library Week is April 13-19, 2008. I'm posting a presentation I made at GCLS 2007 concerning getting queer books into your local public library's collection.

Good luck!

"I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter, Mr. O'Connell, but I am proud of what I am...
I, am a librarian!" From the movie, The Mummy

Why your local public library?

1. Increases Visibility. Your interest in books with les/bi women’s lives illuminated, increases the public library's interest in books with les/bi women's lives and that increases visibility for les/bi women's lives. Further having "those books" in the public library provides visibility/preservation of the literature in the larger literary world.

2. Increases Availability. A library is a wonderful place to reach folks who might not buy, either because they can't afford to, or because they don't feel comfortable doing so.

3. Increases Validation. The collection of a public library should reflect the community it serves. You are a patron of your local library and have a right to expect positive depictions of les/bi women in the library's collection.

What books are already there?
First, find out what your library has. If you don't have one, Get a library card! Check the catalog. Your local library very likely has a website that allows online searching. --It's fairly rare to find those cute little drawers anymore.--
For a subject search try: Lesbians -- fiction.

You might also need to do a keyword search. This is because a book ends up with more specific subject headings like: Lesbians -- Scotland -- Glasgow -- Fiction or Lesbians -- United States -- Fiction but not have the primary subject of Lesbians -- fiction. The basic idea is that the catalog is designed to find the most specific item, not result in a "big net" of results. Part of the issue has to do with changes in cataloging over time. Systems rarely, if ever, go back and change previous cataloging. There are places where one will still find: homosexuals -- fiction rather than gay men -- fiction.
Those are the issues to be aware of when you're looking in your local catalog. And that's the best way I know to explain the quirks you might find. Frankly, I'm a Reference Librarian, not a Cataloger. If you're really interested in a more technical answer, I can find out for you. Just send me an email.
You might also try a title or author search. And then check the subjects. If you're using a web-based catalog, you can usually click on the subject headings at the bottom of the title or author page to find similar titles. So try Brown, Rita Mae or Garden, Nancy and see if you have Bingo or Annie on my Mind. I mention these titles because they were released by main stream presses and thus are a little more likely to be in any given collection.

Now that you know what's there, ask yourself:

What books would you like to see there?

Draft a list of titles you would like to see and include:

copyright year

Certainly include one or two of your favorite authors, however, also consider including bestselling les/bi fiction titles from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Award-winning titles:
GCLS Literary Awards, Lambda Literary Awards, Publishing Triangle Awards, American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award/Barbara Gitting Literature Awards. Include any titles that are set locally or written by local authors. By local, I mean state. This is a common subject heading, i.e., Colorado -- fiction. And many library systems collect local authors and might have a special local subject for this, i.e., Tennessee authors. You'll want to make a note of this information on your list. If the title has been reviewed somewhere, you might print or copy that review for inclusion as well. Be aware that if a title is not readily available at Amazon or your local bookstore, the library might not be able to get a copy via their distributor. (See note about donations below.)

I would not go in with more than five titles at a time. However, it is not unreasonable to ask how many titles would be considered at a given time and whether there is a better time to request titles (first of the year, monthly, etc).

Next find out, how does your library work?
Speak to the reference or information services staff and ask how they go about their collection development. Explain why you're asking: "I'd like to request some titles for inclusion in the collection. What's the best way to do that?" Some systems may have a handout or a link on their web page about their collection development policy. Ask, "Is there someone I may speak to directly?"

Ask these kinds of questions:

  • Is it centralized? Or done locally? (If you are going to a one location, say a city library, just ask who does the collection development ordering.)
  • May you request titles?
  • How likely are they to order requested titles?
  • How long before you'll know if the title has been ordered? (Ask to place a hold on the title, this way, it will appear on your record and you'll know when it has been added to the collection.)
  • Do they accept donations for inclusion into the collection?
It's worth asking. However, be aware that it is not uncommon for donations of books to go directly into the Friends of the Library book sale and thus generate money for the library. This is because the cost of cataloging a title must be weighed against the cost of purchasing partially processed books from the distributor. It is often more cost efficient to order a new copy than to have a cataloger process a title.

They MIGHT accept a donation of a title that they are unable to access via their distributor, if you make a case for its inclusion. If you provide a hard copy donation, be aware that a large library system might gladly accept two copies, and ask how many they'd like. (If you provide more than one copy, make sure it is the same edition -- the same ISBN -- to facilitate their unique cataloging.)

Final option:
Most libraries will allow you to purchase a "memorial" book via a monetary donation and designate a title. Thus you may be able to give a donation to purchase a book in memory of L. J. Maas, Tee Corinne, that high school gym teacher, etc. Check to make sure the library is willing to purchase the title you're requesting. Make sure it's readily available, etc.

It is possible that you'll run into some hesitation. Ask why. After all, you are a patron and you are asking for these titles. Within reason, the library should reflect your interests and needs.
Follow up.

Wait a month and check the catalog.

Check out the titles, even if you've already read them. One of the standards for maintaining a title in a library collection is circulation. Are people reading it? If a title sits on a shelf for two years, and hasn't been checked out, then staff may consider removing it. Shelf space is a premium. Having said that, one of the things about GLBT titles is that they might be read at the library. Some patrons might feel uncomfortable checking the title out, such as a 14-year old who might not feel safe taking a title home, or a heterosexually married person who might not be ready to out their les/bi-sexual identity to their spouse.

If you do develop a comfortable rapport with someone on staff, you might point this out -- That titles might not circulate, but if they look "read" then they are being used in the library and should be kept in the system, regardless of their check out history. It is possible that this is more true of non-fiction titles, however, it should be remembered in general.

There you have it. Go forth and request books!

-MJ Lowe

When I got [my] library card, that was when my life began.
--Rita Mae Brown