Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Article Note: On Reference Service to GLBT Youth

Citation for the article:

Curry, Ann. "If I Ask, Will They Answer? Evaluating Public Library Reference Service to Gay and Lesbian Youth." Reference and User Services Quarterly 45.1 (2005): 65-74.

I read the article via Omnifile.

Curry's research for this article "investigates the level of reference service provided by public librarians for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT), or questioning youth in the Greater Vancouver area" (65). The research is very localized, and I wonder how librarians in the United States might do in a similar study, especially given the climate in some areas. The article begins with a brief overview of librarians and their importance for GLBT youth. Given that a school library can be a threatening environment, the public library becomes the logical place to seek out information. Curry observes that this is a common theme in GLBT literature. Curry also reviews some of the professional guidelines that librarians abide by such as RUSA's guidelines for reference services. However, Curry observes that, in spite of guidelines and courses on ethics in library school, many librarians may remain antagonistic or indifferent when it comes to GLBT issues.

In the literature review, the author notes that the Internet is now a vital source of information for GLBT youth. However, the same report that Curry cites to make this observation also notes that "questioning youth still living at home many be reluctant to access such information on home computers, and therefore the public library could and should provide the anonymity and safety necessary for such Internet searches" (66). Curry notes further on that most of the literature on library service to GLBT youth focuses on collection development (adding current reources on these topics for instance), treatment of subject headings, and GLBT fiction (specifically the depictions of GLBT character in the fiction and finding good review sources to identify works). The fact that GLBT youth are considered "at-risk" adds to the significance of the issue and the research. Two observations related to this:
  • "Youth in general are often consumed with feelings of isolation, but for gay and lesbian youth, these feelings may be exacerbated by teasing and harassment that escalates to physical abuse" (67).
  • "A survey of teachers indicated they are often unaware of the issues surrounding GLBT youth, and that some would feel uncomfortable if they had to work with an openly gay or lesbian fellow teacher" (67).
Experiences like this means these young people will be reluctant to approach any adult, including reference librarians at a public library. Now, some readers may ask why is this important if the young people can find all the information they need, and then some, on the Internet. Curry cites Richard Huffine with an answer. Huffine, according to Curry, "fears that without any human mediation, GLBT youth will not get the best information available as they struggle with an avalanche of sexual information without the context or reliability and outside the appropriate level for this age group" (67). Librarian can help provide some context and mediation with confidentiality and without prejudices. I know, this sounds very idealistic, but I would like to think most in our profession would do as much. I know I would.

The research project was carried out as an unobtrusive observation. This means that the librarians were not aware they were part of a study. For readers interested in this method, Curry gives a good explanation of how it works, why a researcher might choose to use the method, and the ethical concerns to consider. To gather the data, a proxy was used. The proxy was a 19 year old college student who appeared to be about 16. The rationale was that an older youth would be a better observer and the fact that researchers could not use a minor. Her pseudonym in the article is "Angela."Angela visited various libraries and asked the same question. She then recorded her interactions with library staff as well as her impressions. She made notes on elements such as approachability, first words or greetings, body language, search strategies, and closure. These are basic Reference 101 elements. Overall, the findings are interesting and revealing. Here are some highlights:
  • "Disappointinly, only three librarians explained to Angela how to use any sources--the catalog, the Internet, journal indexes--but they did an excellent job that Angela much appreciated. Instruction of this type is always important, but to empower a youth to find information in the library about GLBT issues could literally save his or her life" (71). In other words, the librarians in this instance provided not only answers but gave help and instruction as well.
  • "In her comments about why she would return, the common elements were that she felt welcome, the librarians were able to place resources in her hands and recommend other sources, and that she received some instruction on how to locate material herself for any future inquiries" (72).
  • "Common elements among the twelve libraries to which Angela would not return were that she received negative physical reactions from the librarians, either because of their disapproval of or unfamiliarity with the subject; that she encountered abrupt or very hurried communication from the librarian; and that she received no concluding statement or question, making her feel that the librarians 'sent me away'" (73).
The article concludes that a "welcoming, enthusiastic, and compassionate librarian can indeed have a positive impact on the life of a GLBT youth as he or she struggles through the emotional quagmires of discovering the personal, physical, and societal aspects of sexual identity" (73). I will simply say this is the type of librarian that we should strive to be for every patron. At least, that is what I aspire to be, and I do better at it some days than others. Back to the article, Curry goes on to advocate for LIS programs to include service to GLBT youth in the curricula. As practicing professionals, we must practice what we preach and ensure equal access to information for all our patrons.

On a final note, Curry suggests that practicing librarians should ask some self-assessment questions in order to be better prepared to serve this population. The questions are as follows:
  • "Do I feel confident responding to questions on GLBT topics? If not, what would I need in order to become more confident?"
  • "Am I familiar with the current concerns and information needs of GLBT youth in my community?"
  • "Am I aware of local GLBT resource centers and information sources to which I could refer library users?" (73)
I may challenge myself and write the answers to these as a post in the near future. In addition, the list of references for the article has some works that I would like to read or look over, and those readings may lead to further writing and reflection as well. Those may take me a while longer since, based on a preliminary search, it looks like I will have to call on the powerful staff of ILL to find them for me. Overall, this is an article that I highly recommend for library school students as well as practicing librarians.

Update note (1/5/06): Around the time I was reading this article, I came across this posting on to a video from BBC. A humorous piece about making sure your library makes available books on gay topics and themes.

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