Confessions of a Librarian: Ellen Greenblatt

Ellen Greenblatt is the co-author of the classic text Gay and Lesbian Library Service (1990, McFarland).  Without this book, many librarians—LGBTIQ or otherwise—would not have known where to start in selecting books and improving services for gay and lesbian library patrons.  An updated, more comprehensive version of Gay and Lesbian Library Service will be available from McFarland this fall.   Currently Ellen is Associate Director for Scholarly Information and Digital Initiatives at the Auraria Library of the University of Colorado Denver.

1. What made you decide to become a librarian?  How did you get into the profession?

I attended college with the intention of becoming a rabbi and so my studies were focused on philosophy, religious studies, the humanities, and ancient languages such as Hebrew and Greek.  After visits to seminaries back east and additional reflection on my part, I decided against my original path.  One of my close friends was studying to be an archivist, and as he shared his experiences, I became increasingly excited at the prospect of following his example.  I applied to the University of Denver which had an excellent dual degree program in library science and archival management, with the intention of ultimately working in a Jewish archive.  When I got there, I loved every minute of it and knew I had found my home. Upon graduation, I was offered a job at a Jewish archive, but also at Princeton University Library, and chose the latter position.  And, as they say, the rest is history …

2. How do people react when you tell them that you’re a librarian?  Do you feel that you fall into any of the librarian stereotypes?

Many of them seem surprised, but overall their reactions are positive. I think many people have no idea what librarians do – several have asked me if I get paid to read books.  Wouldn’t that be wonderful?! ! But once we’re past that part of the conversation, folks usually share an anecdote about how a particular librarian or library made a difference in their lives.  I started out as a cataloger, and most people who know what catalogers do are surprised when I tell them.  I guess I don’t fit their stereotype.  And those who don’t know what catalogers do?  Well, many years ago my aunt asked me what I did at work and I explained about being a cataloger.  Her response was, “Well, I suppose somebody has to do that.”   I don’t see myself as fitting most librarian stereotypes, as people are usually shushing me (as opposed to the other way around) and I don’t have enough hair for a bun.  I do, however, always wear comfortable shoes.

3. What is the biggest challenge in the workplace or the community that you face as an LGBTIQ librarian?

In the beginning, it was getting lesbian and gay resources (and later BTIQ resources) into libraries.  And then getting librarians to realize that just because these materials didn’t circulate didn’t mean they weren’t being used.  Because of the stigma attached to being LGBTIQ, many users may have hesitated to check out these materials on their library card, although they undoubtedly consulted them furtively in the library.  In fact, a colleague in one of the public libraries here in Colorado tells me that she was told that since these types of books didn’t circulate, her library would not continue to buy them.  When she went to the shelves, it was clear from the wear and tear that the books in question had seen lots of use.  Although in the intervening years this situation has improved, I am concerned about the impact of the budget cuts that libraries are facing in our current economy and how this will affect resources pertaining to such marginalized groups as LGBTIQ library users.  Librarians are making some very tough decisions on how to allocate precious resources, and since LGBTIQ library users are perceived as a small (and sometimes invisible) group, we may face curtailments in services and cutbacks in collection development funds as a result.

4. You are considered a pioneer in the field of LGBTIQ librarianship because the book you co-edited with fellow librarian Cal Gough in 1990 called Gay and Lesbian Library Service.   What was your inspiration for this book?

Before the book came out, there was very little information available about gay and lesbian library issues and resources.  Just a few years earlier, I had taken over the helm of the newly renamed American Library Association Gay and Lesbian Task Force (now known as the ALA Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Roundtable, or GLBTRT) upon Barbara Gittings’ resignation.  And shortly thereafter, Cal Gough started the ALAGLTF Clearinghouse. Our work with the Task Force put us in the right place at the right time.  Not only did we know that there was a need for the information from the many requests we were getting, but we also knew the perfect people to help us put together a practical resource guide.   Other folks were realizing this need as well, and so with the encouragement of the legendary Sandy Berman (an activist librarian who pushed the Library of Congress to revise homophobic, racist, and obsolete subject headings), McFarland & Company approached us about putting together a book on the topic.

5. What goals did you hope to achieve in putting Gay and Lesbian Library Service in the hands of other librarians and library school students?  What impact do you feel the book made on libraries and librarians?

Basically, we wanted library workers to become aware of the needs of gay and lesbian users and to offer them ideas and tools to respond to those needs.  In those pre-Internet days, it was difficult to network with others and to identify relevant resources.   I think that Gay and Lesbian Library Service filled that void. Half the book was dedicated to providing helpful resource lists, directories, and bibliographies.  I am constantly amazed by the number of people who have used the book.  I have received letters and emails from around the globe.  Many students have told me it is the only book they bought in library school.

6.  A brand new version of Gay and Lesbian Library Service will be coming out in Fall 2010, correct?  Should we see this version as “new and improved”?

If all goes according to plan, the new book, which is entitled Serving LGBTIQ Library and Archives Users: Essays on Outreach, Service, Collections and Access, will be available from McFarland this fall.   I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as “new and improved.”   But it does build upon the legacy of Gay and Lesbian Library Service.  The current volume covers a lot of new territory. It’s much more inclusive, spotlighting the bisexual, intersex, and transgender communities, plus it brings the subject matter into a 21st century context by exploring the role of the Internet and Web2.0 applications in libraries and archives.  The 39 contributors are a diverse group, ranging from those about to embark upon library careers to those on the verge of retirement, and they offer a variety of perspectives on a broad array of topics.  One of the major distinctions from the earlier volume is the addition of profiles featuring powerful personal accounts of individuals’ experiences as well as providing brief glimpses into the workings of particular libraries, archives, and related organizations.

7. I noticed that the new version will also be available as an EBook.  How many formats?   Will it be sold on Amazons as a Kindle EBook so that Kindle users will not be left out?  How will it be available for EBook collections for academic libraries?

Planning is still in the early stages.  The folks at McFarland have told me that the EBook edition will definitely be available via ebrary, MyiLibrary, and NetLibrary, which means that it has a good chance of reaching users in academic libraries.  I understand that the number of print sales drives Amazon’s decision on whether they create a Kindle version, so we won’t know for some time whether our book will make the cut.  However, with the launch of Google Editions this summer (which is platform independent unlike proprietary devices such as the Kindle), the book will be available for download to computers, EReaders, and mobile phones when it appears in the fall.

8. As a librarian and a book lover, what is your opinion on EBooks?  Do you have an EReader of any kind?

I think EBooks are definitely revolutionizing the publishing world.  I use EBooks at my library frequently when researching topics.  I especially like being able to easily find a quote I’m seeking or to quickly search for a subject of interest.  However, I’ve been a book lover all my life, and my favorite method of R&R is curling up with a good book.  I haven’t invested in an EReader of any kind as yet – much to the amazement of my friends who know how much I like electronic gadgets.  But what really stands out in my mind is the incident last summer where Amazon deleted George Orwell’s 1984 from the Kindles of customers who had bought a particular edition of the book (Talk about irony!)  While I understand and support digital rights management (DRM), I was floored by Amazon’s ability to simply remove the EBook from people’s personal devices.  This has huge implications concerning privacy and censorship.  And so, until these issues are resolved, I don’t see myself purchasing an EReader anytime soon.

9. What advice do you have for librarians who would like to select LGBTIQ resources for their collections?

I’ll approach your question from my perspective as an academic librarian. The interdisciplinary nature of LGBTIQ studies can make collection development a daunting process.  Spanning several branches of learning, it is not as clearly defined nor as self-contained as other fields such as French literature.  So keeping up with developments in the field can be difficult for LGBTIQ selectors and even more difficult in libraries that do not have a dedicated selector for this topic. The best way to ensure that librarians can readily identify relevant materials is through collaboration and communication – internally with other selectors in the library and externally with campus stakeholders.  We can connect with faculty, students, and staff in several ways such as attending departmental or student organization meetings, offering library instruction to classes and groups, and collaborating with campus LGBTIQ resource centers.  These types of outreach work both ways – not only can librarians raise awareness about what the library has to offer in terms of collections and services, but they can better understand the users’ research and informational needs of through consultation, instruction, and collaboration on projects of mutual interest.

10.  If you ever had to sell your personal book collection, what is the ONE LGBTIQ title that you would keep, and perhaps pass on to someone of the next generation?

Wow, that’s a tough question! There are so many books that have influenced me over the years. But I’ll go with the first book that springs to mind:  Another Mother TongueGay Words, Gay Worlds. Here’s the WorldCat link (I am a librarian, after all J)  I read it half a lifetime ago, but remember it fondly today because it resonates so powerfully with my interests and experiences.  Initially, I was drawn to the book because of its exploration of lesbian and gay language.   Those who know me know of my lifelong passion for this topic which has expressed itself in several ways – researching etymologies, building thesauri, and analyzing subject headings.  But I soon found that the book was so much more.  The author, award-winning poet Judy Grahn, weaves cultural history and folklore along with autobiographical glimpses into her past.  While I was enchanted by the former, I felt an immediate connection to her tales of coming of age as a lesbian.  We both grew up in New Mexico, although our coming out processes were a couple of decades apart.  I felt like I was learning from the generation before me and so think this would be a wonderful book to share with the next generation.