by Jim Van Buskirk
Growing up in the suburbs of Southern California in the 1950s and 1960s, I thought I was the only person who felt the way I did. Books and public libraries had been my saviors when I was a kid and I turned to them again when I started to come to terms with my sexual confusion.
In the spring of 1973 I interrupted my college education at the University of Washington and moved back to my native California where I finally came out at the age of 20. One of the first books I found was Dennis Altman’s Homosexual Oppression and Liberation (New York: Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, 1971), which I “borrowed” from the bookstore where I worked.
I recall trying to buy The Advocate from a coin-operated street newspaper stand. I walked nonchalantly past the machine, then dropped in the quarter, then walked back by and yanked on the handle. Of course it got stuck, frustrating my futile attempts to appear as if I weren’t really buying a gay newspaper. I also remember marching in one of the early gay parades in San Francisco and worried about my parents in Seattle seeing me on the news.
As a student at the University of California at Berkeley, when I finally had the courage to check a gay book out of the undergraduate library, I would make a “sandwich” and hide the gay book between two less offensive titles. By the time I received my B.A. in sociology in 1977, I had written my honors thesis about the dynamics of the coming-out process. Those days seem so long ago and yet the memories remain with me as I work to acquire and make accessible materials for a broad spectrum of library users. I consider myself an activist by being out personally and professionally as a queer* librarian. This was not something that I planned — it just happened.
In 1979 I became involved with developing a traveling library exhibit under the auspices of the Pacific Center for Human Growth. Using books, photographs and objects to depict the lesbian and gay experience, “Out of the Closets” was displayed in several Bay Area libraries, including Berkeley Public Library, California State College at Haywood, Mills College, Sacramento Public Library, and Haywood Public Library throughout 1979 and 1980. An account of this seemingly innocuous but sometimes surprisingly controversial project, “On Display: Presenting Gay Culture in a Library Setting,” appeared in Catalyst: A Socialist Journal of the Social Services, no. 12 (1981): 111—117.
As part of my coursework in library school at University of California Berkeley in 1979—1981, I compiled annotated bibliographies of gay-related materials. This lack of quality resources at the time was surprising and disappointing. I felt like I was coming out anew in each class as I turned in each assignment.
Shortly thereafter when I responded to a call for book reviewers in Library Journal, without really thinking, I sent off annotations from these gay bibliographies as the requested examples of my writing. Suddenly I was being sent uncorrected galleys of gay and lesbian books and asked to review them. I quickly realized that I had the potential to influence the acquisition of lesbian and gay materials by librarians all over the country. I took this position seriously and have continued to try to word my reviews so that librarians would be encouraged to acquire deserving titles for their collections. My “beat” includes books on sexuality, especially male homosexuality, AIDS, and, recently, video formats. My book reviews have also appeared in The James White Review, Lambda Book Report, Photo Metro, Library Quarterly, and other periodicals. For a short time I was book review editor for the San Francisco Sentinel.
As a direct result of my Library Journal reviews, I was asked to participate in a Reference Update panel at the November 1985 California Library Association and to focus on lesbian and gay reference materials. I dutifully compiled a bibliography but again was disappointed at the available titles.
Having seen my CLA presentation, the librarian at the Eureka Valley-Harvey Milk Memorial Branch of the San Francisco Public Library invited me to sit on the advisory board for the Gay and Lesbian Collection there. This branch, located at the Castro neighborhood, created in 1979 a separate circulating collection of lesbian and gay materials, said to be the first such collection as part of a public library system. The Community Advisory Board helped the branch librarian with collection development, planning programs, publicity, donations, and other appropriate areas. After serving on that board for several years, I stepped down when I accepted a position at San Francisco Public Library. (I had worked for San Francisco Public Library in 1981 directly out of library school but left to live in Paris for a year and when I returned to San Francisco, I was to become Director of the Library at the Academy of Art College, a small private fine and applied arts college.)
On my return to San Francisco Public Library, I was assigned to the Catalog Department and later worked in the Art/Music/Recreation Department as well. I was invited to go to Tallahassee to help evaluate the published and archival collection of Barbara Grier and Donna McBride, co-owners of Naiad Press. Imagine my surprised pleasure when Barbara, the maven of lesbian publishing herself, said she was proud to meet me based on my years of Library Journal reviews. Within two years a position was announced for Director of the Gay and Lesbian Center, and I was thrilled to be appointed to the position.
During my involvement with Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA), I became frustrated with the fact that although there was much organizational discussion of multiculturalism and much socializing of the lesbian and gay members there was no concerted effort to discuss the lack of documentation of lesbian and gay issues in the visual arts, nor the specific needs of lesbian and gay individual library workers. While queer issues are discussed in literature, film, theater, their documentation is remarkably scarce in the visual arts. With the support of other colleagues, the Gay and Lesbian Interests Round Table (GLIRT) was founded and has since sponsored sessions to bring these issues to the attention of the organization.
In 1991, I presented a paper (later published in Art Documentation, 11:4, Winter 1992) entitled “Between the Lines: The Often Fruitless Quest for Lesbian and Gay Materials” as part of a panel I helped organize titled “Sexual Perversity in Chicago: The Impact of Artists’ Sexuality on Their Work.” In the course of developing that panel, I met the lesbian photographer and writer Tee A. Corinne, who has been incredibly supportive of my efforts to document lesbian and gay visual artists. Her encouragement led me to begin soliciting books for a regular book review column in Newsletter of the Gay and Lesbian Caucus of College Art Association.
Another result of my attending the business meeting of CAA’s Gay and Lesbian Caucus was to become part of the committee that assisted James Saslow in editing the Bibliography of Gay and Lesbian Art (New York: Gay and Lesbian Caucus, College Art Association, 1994). This work included some 1,200 annotated citations of works dealing with “gay, lesbian, or bisexual artists and themes in the arts.” Together Tee and I co-moderated a panel at the College Art Association conference in San Antonio in January 1995, titled “Gay and Lesbian Art Books: Portable Galleries with Paper Walls,” on which I presented “Periodically Perverse: Queer Magazine Art(icles).”
In 1992 I helped organize the contingent of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Library Association in the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade. As we marched proudly down Market Street, our numbers growing with each block, we were enthusiastically cheered. When a color photograph of the contingent being the GLTF/ALA banner appeared on the cover of the July/August issue of American Libraries, I was pleased but didn’t give it much thought. I was therefore unprepared for the vitriolic letters that started appearing in subsequent issues. I had thought librarians to be a fairly liberal group, committed to providing objective information on any and all subjects equally to all patrons. I was shocked and appalled by the unbridled bigotry of my colleagues: “People’s sexual preferences don’t belong on the cover of my professional magazine” and “... I wanted to puke!”
My energy fueled a renewed effort to improve library service to lesbian and gay users. Perhaps the single most important resource in this area has been Gay and Lesbian Library Service edited by Cal Gough and Ellen Greenblatt (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1990), which provides a wealth of invaluable information. I have recommended it when asked to address library school students at UC Berkeley and San Jose State University.
Although the San Francisco Public Library has thankfully avoided most episodes dealing with censorship, even in this liberal city, all is not paradise. In 1992 a letter writer called for the removal of the Rainbow Flag, which had flown without incident above the Eureka Valley Branch since 1989. Seized as an opportunity by the Christian Coalition, the flag was used as the focus of a national campaign by the “700 Club.” After three meetings before the Library Commission at which the hostility between the religious right and the lesbian and gay community was palpable, the Library Commission moved to continue flying the flag and in fact drafted a resolution to that effect.
In summer of 1994, Bill Benemann at the University of California’s Brancroft Library and I collaborated on plans to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. As we said in the catalogue to the exhibit, “... we believe that it is extremely important for the long and rich history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people to be documented, written about, discussed, and celebrated.” At University of California Berkeley’s Doe Library, “0 Pioneers! 100 Years Before Stonewall” honored the men and women who during the period 1869 to 1969 contributed to the development of the principles that would eventually find expression in the Stonewall Rebellion, while at San Francisco Public Library, “Tales of the City: Lesbians and Gay Men Since Stonewall” chronicled many important personalities and events that took place in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1969 to 1994. The exhibits’ titles, from Willa Cather and Armistead Maupin respectively, indicate the importance of our literary heritage. An overwhelming positive response was engineered by dedicated teams at each institution.
As a white, middle-class male, having lived for the past twenty-two years in San Francisco, I try not to take for granted my privileged position and to keep in mind the variety of experiences of lesbians and gays, both library workers and patrons in other parts of the country. This is one of the roles of the listserv GAYLIBN, which sometimes falls short of its full potential of providing assistance to librarians (queer or not) around issues of collection development, user services, specific bibliographic citations, reference, and issues such as subject access, periodical indexing, and other areas that would improve library service to lesbians and gays. I try to keep myself informed about and sensitive to the issues of people of color, the physically challenged, youth, the elderly, women, transgenders, and other marginalized constituencies within the queer communities as I work to improve library services. Given the losses to our communities, as well as the extent to which a gay and questioning youth is at risk of substance abuse and suicide, it is imperative that the truth of our culture and history be permanently documented and made accessible to combat the lies that continue to propagate. Our lives depend on it.
It is for this reason that I am so proud of the San Francisco Public Library for its vision to create the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center (named for the local gay philanthropist) and of the Library Foundation, which has raised over $2.5 million to date for the Center.
When it opens in the spring of 1996, the Center will contain a permanent research center devoted to the documentation of lesbian and gay history and culture. In addition to the collection of books, magazines, manuscripts, films, videos, photographs, posters, recordings, ephemera, memorabilia, and other materials (such as buttons, T—shirts, and matchbooks), the Center will also contain archival collections of personal papers and organizational records. Major donated collections include the papers of journalist/author Randy Shifts and Barbara Grier and Donna McBride’s collection of lesbian pulp novels, other published materials, as well as their archives of Naiad Press. Moving image collections include preliminary interviews and other historic material related to Peter Adair’s ground-breaking 1977 documentary Word Is Out and Rob Epstein’s Academy Award—winning documentaries Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. A well-appointed circular room on the second floor overlooking the Civic Center Plaza will serve as the hub of this collection of materials to be preserved and made accessible throughout the building. The James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center is certain to be an ongoing symbol of the importance of preserving the history and culture of lesbian, gay and bisexual and transgendered people. To ensure equal access to all users and to acknowledge the historic role of San Francisco in the struggle for queer civil rights — where better than San Francisco Public Library?
*At the risk of offending some readers, but without apology, I use the word “queer” throughout this essay to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Though I am well aware of the word’s hurtfulness as an epithet, I feel strongly that its inclusiveness merits it reclamation.
from: Liberating Minds: The Stories and Professional Lives of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Librarians and Their Advocates. Edited by Norman G. Kester. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 1997. Pp. 214-218.