Roanoke LGBT Library finds home as research collection in Roanoke Diversity Center

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by Tiffany Stevens, courtesy of The Roanoke Times

For nearly two decades, Roanoke’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Memorial Library (VA) has been shuffled from location to location, settling for a few years in a business or storefront only to be closed and moved again.

But on Thursday, thanks to the efforts of a group of volunteers, the large collection opened as a public research resource in the Roanoke Diversity Center.

Gregory Rosenthal, a Roanoke College assistant professor, co-leads the Southwest Virginia LGBTQ+ History Project, which works to research and document regional LGBT history. Volunteers with that project worked for more than a year to create an online catalog for the library’s 2,700 volumes, Rosenthal said.

“The books have been pretty much inaccessible since, hard to say when,” Rosenthal said. “It’s probably the fifth time it’s been reopened now.”

Rosenthal said the collection will be open for research use only during the center’s open hours, from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Volumes will not be available for checkout.

The collection spans a wide array of subjects, from medical and psychology books from the 1960s and ’70s, to mid-20th century lesbian pulp fiction novels. Numerous autobiographies, biographies and works of fiction by and about LGBT icons such as Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Leslie Feinberg, Virginia Woolf and Rita Mae Brown are also housed in the library, as well as books recounting the history of LGBT people in America, Greece and pre-modern Europe.

On Dec. 6, 2000, The Roanoke LGBT Memorial Library first opened as The Ricketson GLBT Library in the basement of the Lifestream Center in Grandin Village. It began as a 1,200-volume collection, stocked primarily through the private collection of Jim Ricketson, a gay man and retired book editor.

Ricketson left his trove of books — spanning fiction, autobiographies, medical and legal books — to his friend Ed Harris, a fellow gay man who described the library as “a marvelous small museum of gay work,” according to a previous story in The Roanoke Times.

Daniel Jones, a 70-year-old who worked as one of the collection’s original librarians, said that the library’s original spot in the Lifestream Center was a comfortable and attractive space, with plenty of parking for patrons.

For $5 annually, patrons could borrow volumes for two weeks. But the library’s creation received a mixed response in the community. A pastor at Raleigh Court United Methodist Church welcomed the library; a woman living near the center told The Roanoke Times anonymously that she worried youths would be “influenced” by the library’s materials.

“We could keep regular hours. We had enough people to do that,” Jones said. “But once we lost that space, partly to homophobia, partly to the objections of the other people who ran that space, it was difficult finding space that we could afford.”

In 2002, the library moved to a Kirk Avenue storefront, then moved again in 2005 to the Drop-In Center, a downtown HIV testing clinic.

Throughout the years, members of Roanoke’s LGBT community continued to donate books, growing the collection to nearly 3,000 volumes. Some books also came from a now-closed gay bookstore, Outward Connections, Rosenthal said.

Jones said Harris’ leadership was critical to the library’s formation, seeking out crucial historical texts as well as more eccentric tracts.

“He was the heart and soul of it and as long as he was able, he kept everybody going,” Jones said. “Once he got sick and had to back out, we simply couldn’t hold it together. It was a question of money and lack of support.”

The library made another move, this time to the Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge in 2011. It remained there until it was moved last year to the Roanoke Diversity Center, which is located in the same building.

Although the History Project will not be purchasing new volumes for the library, Rosenthal said, the group will continue to accept donations of new books while space is still available. The group has already taken in dozens of books while cataloging the collection, Rosenthal said, including a recent donation of 30 works of classic gay literature from a woman in Franklin County. Sometimes the donations are dropped off anonymously outside the Diversity Center’s doors.

“We were almost done cataloging this fall, and then we got a box of 50 classic lesbian texts from who knows who,” Rosenthal said. “Sometimes there’s a note, sometimes not.”

Morrigan McKernan, a 16-year-old Patrick Henry High School student who has helped catalog the library since September 2016, said the library provides an invaluable resource for young LGBT people who wish to learn about the community’s history.

For McKernan, the lesbian pulp fiction novels, as well as the psychology volumes, hold a special interest. Those psychology books document prejudice in the medical field toward LGBT people, describing “the disease of homosexuality” and showing how authors’ views toward LGBT people changed over time.

“As a young queer person, I find that very few queer young people know about the history of queer people in America and they know very little about the culture before the Internet,” McKernan said.

“A lot of times, these books are rare or out of print or hard to access for people who are not in academia. The fact that these are all in one spot makes it easier for people to access it.”