on public libraries, queer fiction, inefficient databases, and a homophobic software “bug”

i like to read. not a shock, i know.

i like to read books from a variety of genres and on variety of topics. in fact, i’ll read just about anything available. when given options, i’m especially fond of science fiction, travelogues by women, non-fiction historical narratives, and how-to manuals.

lately, i’ve been reading about australian history, australian women in antarctica, aboriginal australian experiences, and bike trips in australia, with a harry potter novel thrown in to lighten everything up a bit. with a holiday coming up next week, when i’ll have 12 days away from my computer, i decided that i wanted some good fiction to enjoy at the beach.

so, off to the library.

i went to the fiction section, and was quickly overwhelmed, because it was all ordered by author and i wasn’t in the mood for the long browse that may have been necessary for me to find something appealing.

well, i thought to myself, what do i want to read? i want a novel, i decided, about australian queer women. i would like to have a better idea about the lives of dykes in this country, and anyway, if there’s romance in a novel, it’s easier for me to enjoy it when i don’t have to change too many pronouns in order to identify with a protagonist.

i went to the public computer terminal and entered “lesbian fiction” into the catalogue search field. a new page appeared, with a large black square in the middle: under the image of an exclamation point, it read “oops! you’re not allowed to look at that!”


i went back, and tried just “lesbian”.

same result.

maybe it’s under “gay”, i thought… but all that garnered was a ton of results such as under “gay men – health” and “gay men – relationships”, etc etc etc.

i tried “lesbian” again.

this time, the warning message read “if you keep this up, there will be consequences”


if by “this”, they meant being queer, then yes, there seems to be a “consequence”: i have to deal with homophobic bullshit from software at the public library.

for a moment, i was at a loss for what to do. on one hand, i wanted to just say FUCK IT, and leave, because i shouldn’t have to out myself in order to find a good book.

but on the other hand, what about the folks coming in to the library who are questioning their sexual identity, or supporting someone who is? they’ll be even less likely to seek out a librarian’s help… i know, because i spent most of my coming out days in the library.

i took a deep breath, calmed my righteous anger and fear, and found a librarian to join me at the computer. as politely as possible, i told her what i wanted and what searches i’d tried. she told me that it was “a bug in the system” for the public catalogue terminals, and tried the same searches, with the same results.

i gave an awkward little laugh and said, “a bug? hmmm… yeah, all i could think was that that’s kinda offensive!”

she tried on her own computer, where there are no blocks (or “bugs”), and said that all she could find were some short stories. i thanked her, and went to get them: it was a collection of contemporary lesbian love stories, all by american and canadian authors.

le sigh.

i returned to the public terminal and searched the catalogue for something by emma donoghue. her novel hood is just about my favourite book, but i’ve missed the rest of her work. happily, i found one of her books. also, a sarah waters novel: i’ve never read anything of hers, but it’s been recommended. in the catalogue, i saw that they also had laurie j. marks’ elemental logic trilogy, which i’m tempted to re-read.

after examining the catalogue some more, i realized that there were no subject tags on any of the fiction listings.  this made me feel a bit better, if only because queer novels aren’t the only ones lost in the multitude of themes.  however, it also annoyed me, because it is inefficient.  what if i was on a real nautical kick, and wanted some sea-going adventures to compliment my love of  c.s. forester’s hornblower?  how would i find out about patrick o’brian?

that’s a misleading analogy, of course.  there is a very big difference between wanting a book about sailors and a book about queers. last time i checked, sailors aren’t being mocked, abused, legally oppressed, or murdered for being who they are.

i believe that fiction plays a vital role for queers learning to accept ourselves.  when i was coming to terms with my sexuality, a self-help book on “how to come out” (or whatever) was the last book i’d have taken from the library:  it was too forthright and intimidating.  but jane rule’s after the fire?  that was easy, because the story wasn’t “real”:  joining the protagonist on her journey allowed me to explore the concept of my queerness without forcing it into fact before i was ready.  through fiction, i could delve into the lives of queer women and become familiar with them at a distance that still felt intimate.

we need queer fiction to counteract the stress of homophobia, which is linked to the over-representation of queers in treatment for depression.  for the health of the community, queer fiction needs to be easy to access, and public libraries need to assist with this task.  an easy solution is the application of subject headings to all fiction, which increases its relevance to all library users:  the sailors as well as the queers.

back to the “bug”.  if the public library software won’t allow access to resources associated with a sector of society which is currently struggling for equality in the face of severe oppression, THAT’S MORE THAN A BUG.  even if the blockage of results from a search of the word “lesbian” is a coincidence, the results are offensive at best.  at worst, they are damaging, because they discourage people from finding help they may desperately need.  hell,  i’m out and proud, and even i got shaky knees at the prospect of having to ask a librarian for queer books!

my roommate said that a “bug” such as this warrants a sign next to each public computer terminal, which 1) explains that certain valid search words may incorrectly garner a warning, 2) states that the error will be fixed within a given time frame, and 3) directs clients to seek the assistance of a librarian should the error arise.

damn right!

i’m going to go write a looooooooong letter to the head librarian right now.

then, i’m going to use the internet to find some novels about australian queer women.


4 responses to “on public libraries, queer fiction, inefficient databases, and a homophobic software “bug”

  1. That was a great post!

    I may start getting all of my book recommendations from your blog – you are far better read than I!

  2. feralgeographer

    thanks, amanda! but wait, aren’t you like a classics major or something??? i’m sure you’ve got more lit cred than me! srsly, i may be broadly read, but i’ve skipped soooooo much of the important stuff. at least, that’s what my parents say… then again, they’re english teachers, and have a rather odd view of what constitutes “important”.

  3. stuff like makes me so mad! so does this http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6654956.html?nid=2286&source=title&rid=1019279294

    I posted it ala my work facebook a little while back. Grrrr.

  4. feralgeographer

    oh wow, julia… thanks for the link: that’s so fucking ridiculous. i mean, really: i spent my YA years reading all sorts of books that “affirmed a traditional heterosexual perspective” and look how i turned out!

    well, actually i think i turned out pretty good… but that’s probably despite such books, not because of them.

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