- “Let’s Not Homosexualize the Library Stacks”:Liberating Gays in the Library Catalog
I went to texts on abnormal psychology, to encyclopedias, to medical books, to every book dealing with sex, as well as to whatever I could find under card catalog headings like “sexual perversion.” I was so anxious to get to the materials on homosexuality, I didn’t even mind looking in categories like “perversion” and “abnormal.” And I half believed them anyway.—Barbara Gittings
Encounteringa book with queer characters and storylines can be a personal or academic milestone—a transformative awakening to self-knowledge. For the more seasoned among us, such a discovery was likely fraught with pathologizing language that reflected the prevailing attitudes of the time. In libraries before the 1970s the books would have been cataloged with the subject heading “Sexual perversion” and shelved alongside books on sex crimes, incest, and pedophilia. Those searching for fictional works about gays and lesbians found themselves identifying with particularly flawed characters whose stories usually ended tragically. These readings often took place in the stacks, in stolen, secret moments. For some, this first experience was the result of directed searches in card catalogs, as Barbara Gittings describes above, while for other readers, like Lillian Faderman, the first book was encountered by accident:
So I’m in the stacks of the English Reading Room about to be seduced. I’m looking for a novel by E. M. Forster, and it’s not there. … But in the spot where the book is supposed to be sitting is another book, not by Forster, but by Foster. Jeannette Foster. With the title Sex Variant Women in Literature. … Is “Sex Variant Women” really a euphemism for what I think it is? It is! And that spectacular revelation knocks the breath out of me. … Standing there in the stacks, I devour the opening section, even forgetting to look over my shoulder to see if I’m being observed. I read for twenty minutes or half an hour, and no one comes by to frighten me away. But I mustn’t press my luck. I place the book [End Page 478] back in its slot, vowing to visit again as soon as I can, praying I’ll have no rival for my devoted attention to it.1
Anecdotes like those of Gittings and Faderman testify to the importance of books and libraries in the coming-of-age experiences of LGBTQI people. The present generation has access to a wealth of fiction and nonfiction waiting to be stumbled upon and inviting scholars and the wider public to enjoy books filled with joy, depth, and complexity. The current richness of possibilities contrasts with the sense of fear and revulsion or thrilling transgression that discovering oneself in a book once entailed for sexually curious or “perverse” individuals. Much of this pleasure is owed to activist librarians of the 1970s, primarily in the United States, who launched the movement to promote and increase access to gay and lesbian library materials. These librarians, who were generally active in the wider gay liberation movement, not only demanded rights and recognition but also challenged the organizing techniques that regulate and enforce heteronormative knowledge structures in the places where we find literature and information about sex and sexuality.
The stories of some of these individuals are well known. Barbara Gittings, for instance, is revered for her role in influencing the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders and as the leader of the Task Force on Gay Liberation of the American Library Association (ALA), the first gay and lesbian professional organization in the United States. Inspired by personal experience, she also devoted herself to increasing the accessibility of gay-positive reading materials.2 Rather than revisiting the already-told stories of gay and lesbian library activism in these years, however, this article focuses on the work of cataloger activists who effectively persuaded the Library of Congress (LC) to revise its terms and arrangements regarding homosexuality during the 1970s and 1980s. I rely on documentary evidence, particularly correspondence with and about the Library of Congress. In the following pages I will discuss the impact of the...