Finding Queerness in the Catalog: How Do You Identify (Me)?

A reflection on LGBTQIA+ representation as Pride Month concludes

Researching a topic like queer history that feels personal to me can sometimes prompt the uncomfortable echo of medical forms. Should I enter “lesbian,” “queer,” or “gay”? “Partner” or “wife”? Will they use the right pronouns for me? If I pick the wrong word, will a gatekeeper respond with rejection, refusal, or errors?

One challenge when researching LGBTQIA+ subjects is that the language used by communities, and by scholars studying these communities, has evolved substantially over time. Libraries rely on standardized data and vocabularies when organizing and describing records. In addition to the flawed standards themselves, staffing and resource limitations compel libraries to rely on record information we receive from publishers, booksellers, or organizations that manage bibliographic data. As a result, library catalogs are often slow to reflect societal changes.

For example, searching Lehigh’s library catalog for “Transsexuals,” a term many in the community consider outdated, yields almost as many results as a search for the preferred “transgender people.” The more expansive term “gender identity” yields many more results, but includes books on gender roles unrelated to trans topics. (See GLAAD’s reference guide for more information on terminology). Colloquial terms popular now are unlikely to yield substantial results in a library catalog – no matter how many Tumblr posts are tagged with “wlw” or “sapphic,” using those terms to search a library catalog is unlikely to yield much information on queer women.

“The terms appearing in these [library] tools to represent communities
defined by gender, race and sexual orientation are frequently inadequate;
the placement of these terms in classification categories reflects ideologies
and assumptions that are archaic or invalid, and these tools frequently
do not provide the fine-grained distinctions that would satisfy the
information needs of a member of that community.”
(Keilty & Dean, 2012)

Furthermore, knowing the right vocabulary is only effective when records use the words. For example, of the library catalog records for “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde, one of the USA’s most notable queer writers, only a few reference her sexual orientation (Sister Outsider does; Zami: A New Spelling of My Name does not). Another record for one of Lorde’s books lists her as a feminist and lesbian, but lists neither Black nor African-American as a subject. Choosing subject terms for a record can get even more messy. Of particular concern to historical researchers, it’s more common today for individuals to publicly claim an LGBTQIA+ identity. Does, or perhaps more importantly, should a library record mark as queer people who weren’t “out” during their lifetime, or whose LGBTQIA+ identity was never made explicit?

Finally, LGBTQIA+ voices – and particularly those who are also Black, indigenous, of color, working class, disabled, immigrants, and/or marginalized in other ways – have often been excluded, misrepresented, or othered from the historical record and academia. Seeking and honoring these voices may require going beyond traditional routes of scholarship and inquiry.

How can a researcher overcome a misfitting match between the regimented catalog and the nuanced reality of LGBTQIA+ identities? These strategies may help you successfully research LGBTQIA+ topics:

  • Identify terms used in older research or that were common in the time period you’re interested in
  • Use bibliographies and citations to find authors and sources that may not be labeled with LGBTQIA+ subject terms
  • Seek non-academic sources of information – community organizations, popular culture literature, and oral histories can often provide richer information from the community’s own voices
  • To find LGBTQIA+ primary sources, check out resources on the Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies research guide.

Further reading:

  • Campbell, D. G. (2012). “Queer Theory and the Creation of Contextual Subject Access Tools for Gay and Lesbian Communities.” In R. Dean & Keilty, Patrick (Eds.), Feminist and Queer Information Studies Reader. Litwin Books.
  • GLAAD. (2011, September 9). GLAAD Media Reference Guide—Transgender. GLAAD.
  • Hunter, D., & Hitchcock, C. (2018). “Lesbian Testimony Podcast: Episode 24: Dalena Hunter.”
  • Stewart, B., & Kendrick, K. D. (2019). ““Hard to find”: Information barriers among LGBT college students.” Aslib Journal of Information Management, 71(5), 601–617.
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