The Special Information Needs of LGBTQ College Students

Only a few of you will actually read this, but I’m up here on my soapbox again. To me, the issues surrounding the information needs of the LGBTQ community are abundant and complex, so I’ve decided to focus on the specific needs of college students.

Before the ranting begins, allow me to give you a bit of background:

Though my parents are not very conservative people, my father went through a “born again” phase when I was a child. As a result, I attended a very strict, conservative Christian church until I was 12. Around that time, I began to notice that I was developing an attraction toward other girls. Ignorant of the gay community and sexuality in general, I was terrified that I was “turning gay”. I still liked boys, so I figured that I was slowly becoming gay. It upset me to no end, and I prayed for god to change me back. I can’t properly convey to you the damage that it did, and how much I wish I could go back in time and just hold my 12 year old self, tell her it will get better, and give her some good literature to read. Because I didn’t find out until a few years later, when I entered high school, that there existed a third option- bisexuality.

As a queer child in Indiana in 2001, I actually had it easier than most. I made a friend who was just starting to come out, and I had a sympathetic counselor. My friend and I, along with a few others, began having “secret” group meetings in the counselors’ offices every other week. It wasn’t advertised, it wasn’t talked about, and the members were only referred by close friends or their respective counselors. We were able to share with each other, but even the adults leading the groups didn’t have much to say on the subject. They certainly didn’t have any literature to read. And so we didn’t have gay teen fiction, we didn’t have hotlines and encouraging YouTube videos, and we struggled to even find relevant information on the Internet. We had each other, and we were thankful, because we knew that it was so much better than the nothing we’d been through.

In college, I studied sexuality as much as possible in my academic research. I eventually began to identify with the umbrella term “queer”, as it was much more comfortable to me than the binary implications of the word “bisexual”. I’d been out to my brothers since high school, and my mother had found out and thought it was a passing phase. I actually didn’t come out to my father until last year, when our discussions finally came to standstill, and I had to explain to him just why the hell I cared so much about these issues.

A lot has changed in the last ten years. It’s so surprising to me still that I can go into a Young Adult section in a library and find gay teen romances, or see fliers for dances and support groups on bulletin boards, or Google “bisexual” online and be faced with something other than copious amounts of porn. Though the obstacles I faced and the personal torture I endured back then made me a stronger adult today, I don’t want anyone to have to go through some of the things I did. Even with some of the aforementioned support and information systems, gay teens and young adults still face unbelievable challenges with their burgeoning sexualities. And I honestly believe that public libraries are tending to their LGBTQ patrons’ needs much better than academic libraries are their students.

All children develop personally at their own speeds. Some 18 year olds are out of the house, working full time jobs, paying taxes, and even getting married. Others are still living at home with their parents or bag packing around Europe, trying to figure out what their next step may be. Many go to college, and there they are on their own, away from the nest for the first time in their lives. Even children that don’t necessarily grow up in conservative households may not have begun to take a deeper look at themselves and their own sexualities. The reality of the situation, from an academic librarian’s perspective, is that we have a number of students, students who are still children, that are away from home, confused, and not sure where to turn.

It is our responsibility, then, to make sure not only that we have literature and information to give them, but a way to advertise this information in the best way possible. We’ve briefly discussed in class the conundrum of where to put LGBTQ literature. Do we put it in its own section, thereby making it easier for patrons to find? Or is this a form of censorship, or at the very least a reinforcement of the “otherness” of LGBTQ individuals? Furthermore, the implications of these books taking up their own physical space are problematic. Perhaps a patron who is intensely curious to read such literature is afraid to be seen browsing the shelves, lest their presence there “out” them. But how will we communicate to patrons like this that this information is available if the books are interfiled with everything else in our collection?

I don’t have a complete answer, but I have many ideas. I’d very much like to do a study on the subject, as I’ve found only two like it so far. The article I concentrated on is called “The Information Needs of LGBT College Students” by a Master’s student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Susann Schaller assessed the LGBT community at UNC and determined that the university was doing an excellent job at being not just tolerant, but inclusive. There’s an active LGBT student group, workshops offered by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and a program called “Safe Zone” targeted for LGBT students and facilitated by the Student Health Center (101).

Yet when it came time for Ms. Schaller to start interviewing LGBT students, the only people she could find for her interviews and focus groups were a handful of those who were already involved at some level with LGBT activities around campus. Even these students had no idea that there was a special section of one of UNC’s libraries dedicated to them, and few were aware of the student health center’s special resources for LGBT students. Some felt that local bookstores in gay friendly neighborhoods were much better information resources than their own school’s library system (102). One student, a bisexual male, expressed his concern that even those within the LGBT community were ill informed of the nature of other sexualities and gender expressions (105). Ms. Schaller, even while maintaining a perfectly academic tone, was able to express her disconcert at one student’s experience in entering the keyword “gay” in the university catalog and the search yielding resources about Muslim women (106).

Though Ms. Schaller did the best with what she had to work with, her study was nowhere near perfect. Her focus groups were small, her subjects only those students already aware of their sexualities and the LGBTQ community, and her methodology inconsistent. However, it’s a good start in a subject area that I think needs to be focused on and expanded, quickly.

Her study disturbed me for several reasons, none of which were her fault. I wondered how it could be possible that such a progressive university that worked so hard to be inclusive with regards to the LGBTQ community could be so lacking in this type of information literacy, which in turn made me question how much more difficult circumstances must be at more conservative colleges. And what about the other students? The quiet ones, the closeted ones, the guilty ones? These students are so unlikely to among those who will approach a reference or RA desk with inquiries about gay literature.

Personally, I believe that the availability of LGBTQ information should be advertised to incoming freshmen during their orientation, and not just in the fat packets that most students toss after the first week. A point should be made to speak just as much about the resources available to LGBTQ students as other topics, such as Greek life. Those managing catalog databases need to be trained in the special needs of LGBTQ information users and should develop a controlled vocabulary for their metadata, which would result in more specific and relevant search results.

But I feel that librarians themselves can play an absolutely vital role in serving the needs of these students. They are a different sort of information seeker, for they are often shy and sometimes afraid to actively seek out information themselves. It’s for this reason that outreach is essential. We can no longer sit on stools behind a desk and expect students to come to us. Furthermore, LGBTQ students may need more than just us getting up and asking “Is there anything I can help you with?”

Please, people. Print fliers, and stick them in places other than your own bulletin boards. Wear a rainbow pin or piece of jewelry; you’d be surprised how quickly that can draw some of our eyes. Create a special part of the library’s website devoted to LGBTQ webliographies, booklists, and places to go for help. Make interesting and visible displays of gay and lesbian literature in highly trafficked areas of the library.

And watch for us. Watch for the students tentatively browsing the bookshelves, remember those who stopped and considered the flier you hung, and most of all, stand up for these students when anyone—be they university administrators or angry parents—tries to step on the information rights of LGBTQ students. Eventually, someone will hear you, and perhaps they’ll stand a little taller, read a little more confidently, or even find a new role model. The little things you do can make all the difference to a struggling young adult.

I think all the time of how wonderful it would have been for 12, or 16, or 19 year old Molly to have met a librarian willing to do any of those things for me. My soapbox might be even taller yet.

 

Schaller, S. (2011). Information needs of LGBTQ college students. Libri, Vol.

      61.

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