Thursday, 10 April 2014

Trans youth and the public library

Before I begin this post, I will start with a disclaimer: I am a cis person writing about trans people. I am not attempting to speak for trans people or their experiences, nor could I begin to understand the experiences they face. My purpose for writing this, as an ally, is to highlight ways in which libraries and staff can create spaces and collections that benefit trans individuals and groups.
You may be asking yourself, “So what is trans? And what does cis mean?” Trans is a broad term for anyone who defines themselves as other than the gender they were assigned at birth. Cis means someone who is not trans.

Trans youth in Australia are a marginalised minority. They face higher rates of abuse (physical and verbal) committed against them in public and in private. Trans youth may find themselves ostracised from their social groups. The rates of suicide and failed attempts are also much higher than those found in LGB youth.These alarming statistics, along with the support needs of trans people, do not often get the attention they deserve in mainstream media or LGBT groups, an issue known as trans invisibility. Invisibility also affects the way mainstream media have reported crimes committed against transpeople, especially transwomen, and activism around the world. For an example of this, see this article.

In my preliminary research for this post, I found an excellent introductory essay on trans people and public libraries from the University of Iowa. I highly recommend reading this essay as a starting point for understanding some issues related to providing library services to the trans community.

ALIA endorses the IFLA Code of Ethics which states that “librarians and other information workers ensure that the right of accessing information is not denied and that equitable services are provided for everyone whatever their... gender identity... or sexual orientation. ... Librarians and other information workers organize and present content in a way that allows an autonomous user to find the information s/he needs. Librarians and other information workers help and support users in their information searching.”

As library professionals, it is vitally important that we work towards promoting and presenting information to trans youth in our communities as well as provide safe spaces for groups and individuals. Trans youth currently may face several barriers to using public library spaces and information. Concerns about privacy when borrowing or getting an extension on loans, difficulty using controlled vocabulary of catalogues, fears library staff may be hostile towards a trans client and a lack of materials on relevant subjects and easily accessible formats could all combine to greatly diminish a trans person’s interest in using the library to access information. It’s easy to see how these barriers can result in there being major gaps in a library’s collection on information essential to trans youth, and how trans clients would continue to be invisible to the library.

It is possible for libraries to address this issue through the development of relevant collections, and opening the library space up to trans youth groups. Some trans youth may have access to support online, but not in the physical world. Creating face-to-face contact among trans youth is vitally important to help eliminate feelings of isolation within their communities and create support networks. One possible way to  achieve this is through book clubs for trans youth with relevant author talks if possible. By working in collaboration with existing trans groups and organisations, libraries can develop collections providing up to date information on mental and physical health, legal issues, biographies and fiction in accessible formats.

By organising information literacy style programs for local trans youth groups and focusing on the ways the library may be interacted with remotely; through online borrowing, renewals, “ask a librarian” online reference services, booklists, databases and ebooks, this could help to instil a confidence in trans youth that the local library is invested in creating a welcoming and inclusive service. 

Self-education and staff training on trans issues is another initiative libraries could take to ensure that the youth are better served by all members of staff.  Another key way to ensure trans youth are better served by their public library is through promoting special libraries and archives to trans youth that can offer specialised services and histories of trans people in Australia.

Developing collections and spaces to be used by trans youth is a highly important activity public libraries can take to ensure all information needs of members in their communities are met. Barriers restricting access to the library must be dismantled – staff training is a vital part of this process. 

-Caitlin Williams,
Social Media Officer, ALIA Sydney

Further reading:

Growing Up Queer: Issues Facing Young Australians Who Are Gender Variant and Sexuality Diverse

Position paper - young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex

Examples of resource collections for trans people:

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