Public library and private space: Homeless queer youth navigating information access and identity in Toronto

Reviewed By: Linda Daguerre, Jeanene DeFine, Jenell Heimbach, Gloria Montez, Kyrie Rhodes, Julia Riley

Link to article: http://library.ifla.org/2144/1/114-walsh-en.pdf

Article Synopsis

While one often hears of the term “passing” in relation to transgender people who appear to be cis-gender, it can be used in different contexts. Passing is when a person can fit into a group different from their own or how they identify: gender, sexual orientation, race, class, disability, or, as is often the case with LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) homeless youth, that they are passing as having secure housing. The reason one might want to fit into another group is for physical protection. For example, in 2019 twenty-six transgender people were murdered in the United States (Human Rights Campaign, 2020). Another reason one might want to pass is emotional protection from having to justify your identity or deal with people who don’t accept you. This is a particularly important motivation for teenagers, who want to fit in. The paper “Public Library and Private Space: Homeless Queer Youth Navigating Information Access and Identity in Toronto (Walsh, 2018) is an ethnographic study of homeless LGBTQ youth in Toronto, Canada. It explores their need to pass and how public libraries may inhibit their information seeking, due to its public nature. Lastly, this paper suggests what libraries can do to meet homeless LGBTQ youth’s needs for safety, privacy and inclusion.

How this Article Represents an International Perspective

This article was originally published in 2018, in conjunction with the 84th World Library & Information Congress (WLIC), a conference hosted by the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (International Federation of Library Associations, 2018). The International Federation of Library Associations, or IFLA, publishes global articles on the subject of information science, which connects international information professionals to one another, and to global library news and research. Though full-text articles are published in English, IFLA translates abstracts into Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Russian and Spanish (IFLA, n.d.). This article is written by a faculty member at the University of Toronto, in Canada, and focuses on the Toronto LGBTQ homeless community in public and academic libraries, as well as businesses. The article references North American concepts of libraries, and common expectations of public libraries in the US and Canada, including that libraries are valued for providing access to media and being quiet places to study (Walsh, 2018). Additionally, the article mentions the international stigma surrounding use of the public library by individuals experiencing homelessness, citing San Francisco as an example in addition to Toronto (Walsh, 2018).

Core Research Questions

Who makes up the LGBTQ homeless youth?

How are public libraries inhibiting the information-seeking needs for LGBTQ homeless youth?

What are the needs of LGBTQ homeless youth?

What are the informational needs of LGBTQ homeless youth?

What is the theory of information practice?

What is the definition of a public library?

Why aren’t public libraries considered “safe” spaces for LGBTQ homeless youth?

Why do LGBTQ homeless youth feel the need to hide or “pass”?

What is “passing”?

Why are LGBTQ homeless youth not finding private space in public libraries?

Where are LGBTQ homeless youth going for information?

Why are LGBTQ homeless youth seeking information and privacy from academic libraries?

Why was the Apple Store a popular place for LGBT homeless youth to go?

What behaviors are LGBTQ homeless youth practicing that might make them unwelcome in public libraries?

Why do LGBTQ homeless youth prefer non-public library spaces?

How do cisgendered, heterosexual patrons view LGBTQ homeless youth?

What is the goal of the public library?

How can public libraries support LGBTQ homeless youth?

Methods Used to Answer the Research Questions

To understand the relationship between libraries and homeless LGBTQ youth, a study was launched that spanned 2013-2014 that blended observations, research, and interviews. The study was considered exploratory due to the overall lack of knowledge of the subject group. Homeless LGBTQ youth do not outwardly express any clear distinguishable features that would separate them from a homeless teen, a member of the LGBTQ community, or a mainstream youth living with their parents. This is often because they do not want to be recognized or categorized into the demographic so to avoid discrimination, negative stereotypes, or abuse. Due to these factors the study began as broad as possible and slowly shrunk the more the researchers learned. The clearest and most accurate observations came from an organized weekly drop-in program hosted at the library. Those involved consisted of eleven queer and/or trans young adults who were either homeless at the time or had been in the past. They had partaken in one-on-one semi structured interviews which were then analyzed, along with field notes, and photographs in a technique that was established by Emerson, Fretz and Shaw, experts in writing ethnographic field notes.

Findings and Conclusions

The findings gained from the observations and conversations with the LGBTQ homeless youth user shed light on the need for inclusive spaces in the public library. Benjamin Walsh discovered the LGBTQ youth user periodically uses the public library but prefers spaces that allow them to be seen as they choose to be seen, not as a problem or “homeless” (2018). The public library offers public spaces for all and in this way the public library carries the stigma of a place homeless people go. Walsh found this stigma of homelessness to be a contributing factor as to why the LGBTQ homeless youth preferred the Apple Store and academic libraries (2018). These spaces allow them to be more authentic in their identity. Youth can move freely and privately in these spaces. The public library presents a barrier in which they find themselves faced with their homelessnes and exposure to their identity (Walsh, 2018).

Walsh concludes; librarians can re-establish those important connections by going to youth shelters, hiring LGBTQ staff to do outreach and programming, build empathy for the LGBTQ experience through professional development, create private spaces, and take the time to get to know them. The library is a place where strong connections can be made. The commitment is already in the mission so it’s time to adapt those commitments to all users (Walsh,2018).

What American Libraries Can Learn from Global Practice

In an effort for American libraries to assist and recognize the LGBTQ youth communities, it is crucial to start at the beginning; this point that has been ascertained by the information in this article based on the Toronto library system. Globally, the examination of this demographic of library patrons has indicated their preference of areas where they feel safe from scrutiny, victimization and judgement (Walls & Bell, 2011). A location such as the Apple Store has proven to be a preference over public libraries due to the fact that adequate time can be spent at these locations searching for information without having to share their identities but also not having to conceal them (Walsh, 2014). Libraries might benefit from examining unique infrastructures such as this.

Public libraries in the United States, such as San Francisco who purchase defensive architecture to keep the homeless population away should examine and reassess their approach (Gee, 2017). To reestablish a welcoming and “user friendly” space, judgement and prejudice can only add to information poverty which is not synonymous for libraries. As noted in this study, a step towards embracing our homeless LGBTQ youth and fulfilling their information needs would be to focus on the library staff. Enacting outreach programs and training by employing young LGBTQ staff who have personal experience and knowledge in this distinct community, can be the bridge needed to close these gaps, returning these young members to a safe and comfortable place free from the outdoor elements where information is readily available, programs and education is attainable, and their presence is truly welcomed.

References

Gee, A. (2017). Homeless people have found safety in a library – but locals want them gone. The Guardian (International Edition). Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/24/libraries-homelessness-deterlandscape-designs-san-francisco

Human Rights Campaign. (2020). Violence against the transgender community in 2019. Retrieved from https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2019

International Federation of Library Associations. (2018). World Library & Information Congress. Retrieved from https://2018.ifla.org/

International Federation of Library Associations. (n.d.). Journal Description. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/description/IFL

Walls, N. E., & Bell, S. (2011). Correlates of engaging in survival sex among homeless youth and young adults. Journal of sex research, 48(5), 423-436.

Walsh, B. (2014). Information out in the cold: Exploring the information practices of homeless queer, trans and two-spirit youth in Toronto. (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Toronto. Retrieved from: https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/68014

Walsh, B. (2018, June 27). Public library and private space: Homeless queer youth navigating information access and identity in Toronto. Retrieved from
http://library.ifla.org/2144/1/114-walsh-en.pdf