Oak Park Public Library Transgender Resource Collection

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By Bleue J. Benton, Oak Park Public Library, Metropolitan Library System

Originally published in MLS E-nnounce, volume 2, issue 9

Oak Park Public Library (OPPL) undertook an extensive collection evaluation project in 2005, which included looking at diversity in the collection.  This effort ultimately led to the creation of the first focused transgender resource collection in a public library in the United States. “Transgender” is an umbrella term that applies to people whose identity or behavior falls outside stereotypical gender expectations. It refers to many types of people, including transsexuals and crossdressers. Transgender people often face widespread and even socially-condoned discrimination, harassment, and violence.

Transgender people constitute a marginalized population not being served, welcomed, or reflected adequately in public libraries. There is a lack of practical information for or about transgender people in most collections found in Illinois libraries. OPPL believes that the open access environment of a public library offers the best venue for raising public awareness and understanding of gender identity and expression issues, and for serving transgender people. Oak Park Public Library believed that an extensive and innovatively-publicized project, with a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion, would help to promote public libraries as welcoming and safe places for everyone.

Oak Park Public Library applied for and received an LSTA grant, administered through the Illinois State Library.  With this money, they selected, purchased, classified, and processed $3,000.00 worth of circulating nonfiction books, audiobooks, and DVDs on transgender issues. The library now owns about 150 items, mainly books, which are identified in the catalog as “Transgender Resource Collection.”  They also purchased fiction and feature films with their own funds, and identified items already owned.  They extensively promoted the collection and partnered with the Chicago Gender Society, enlisting their help in getting the word out to the transgender community.

A unique part of this project was an exhaustive self study, led by OPPL Communications Coordinator, Sharon Grimm. It resulted in changes regarding library collections, training, facilities, communications, employees, and policies. A six-person committee spent four months investigating possible barriers and best practices in serving transgender patrons or employing transgender people in the library, and produced a detailed 19-page report outlining 35 areas of concern.

The report includes very specific recommendations such as calling for many different types of finding tools; noting that the collection might be more prone to loss and damage than other areas of the collection; and that facilities, in particular restrooms, need attention. The committee recommended changing library card applications, and removing email salutations on automated notices. The report also includes less specific recommendations such as considering diversity when creating displays and when using images of people in communications.

In addition, staff were required to attend basic awareness workshops with the goal of ensuring informed and excellent customer service. Shannon Sullivan, Executive Director of the Illinois Safe School Alliance, conducted basic and advanced two-hour workshops. These sessions were followed up with departmental meetings using scenarios designed to encourage deeper conversation about potential interactions in the library setting. 

Results of this grant have been very satisfying. The grant project was designated as exemplary by the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Oak Park Public Library has been contacted by a number of organizations and has received numerous requests to link to the library’s webpage. A transgender agency in the Canadian Maritimes contacted them for help in compiling a basic list of titles for their area libraries. Two publishers asked to donate books to the collection. Bleue Benton, Collection Development Manager, was a featured speaker and exhibitor at the Be-All, one of the foremost transgender conventions in North America. Members of the Chicago Gender Society shared a very emotional reflection on their joy that a public library is actively welcoming them. For many years their only information sources were found in sleazy adult bookstores, and their only gathering places were unpleasant bars in dangerous locations. It was with great pride that OPPL was honored with their Community Partner Award for 2008.

There is a tremendous amount of information about the transgender resource collection and related library activities on Oak Park Public Library’s website. Here you can find a link to materials in the library catalog, reading lists for adults and children, and local and national resources, as well as a link to their library toolkit that includes the full text of the self-study report, staff discussion scenarios, publicity samples, and “The $200 Transgender Bookshelf” of recommended titles for public libraries. Oak Park Public Library believes that this holistic approach, including awareness workshops and a self study, is an excellent model for collection development in other libraries.

For more information, contact Bleue Benton at bbenton@oppl.org.

Photo of the building is copyrighted Scott McDonald, Hedrich-Blessing.