October 1, 2014

Confessions of a Librarian: Bleue Benton

Posted on 27. Sep, 2010 by in Interviews

Bleue Benton is the Collection Development Manager at the Oak Park Public Library, in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park.  She has established a groundbreaking transgender-specific public library collection in the United States, possibly setting a trend for libraries in other communities to follow.

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

When I was seven years old, I had wanted to be a librarian my whole life; knowing this made everything so much easier. I studied foreign languages for my undergraduate degree and received recruitment offers from the CIA because I knew Russian, a strategic language back in the 1970s. Even with the interesting choice of becoming a librarian or a spy, I chose librarian.

2. What are some of the challenges you face, if any, as a librarian who identifies with the LGBTIQA community?

I’m so lucky to work in Oak Park, Illinois—a progressive community that values diversity. What I worry about is making sure that our collection reflects that diversity. I’m middle-aged, English-speaking, female, white, straight, and able-bodied . . . and I believe very strongly that library collections shouldn’t be just that.

3. I read an article about the Oak Park Public Library’s Transgender Resource Collection and thought, wow—this is a progressive library. I believe that yours is the first public library to develop a special collection with a specific transgender focus. Please tell us how this collection got started!

After an extensive collection evaluation project in 2005, the committee looking at diversity in the collection pointed out that while our LGBT collection in general was okay, it was really focused on L and G, with very few materials that would welcome, serve, and reflect transgender people. We applied for and were awarded a Library Services and Technology Act grant to create and publicize this collection.

Grant funds were used to purchase circulating nonfiction materials, which was particularly meaningful to us because it was federal money, administered through the state of Illinois. This meant that three levels of government – local, state, and federal – endorsed the concept that transgender people need access to information, and that public awareness and understanding of gender identity issues is important. We also purchased transgender fiction and feature films with our own funds. To get the word out, we partnered with Chicago Gender Society and they distributed palm cards in nontraditional places–like bars, nightclubs, and electrolysis offices.

What makes our collection unique is that we knew that having books on the shelf wasn’t going to be enough. We also conducted an extensive self-study that resulted in recommendations for collections, staff, facilities, communications, and policies. A six-person staff committee spent four months investigating possible barriers to transgender patrons or employees in the library, and produced a 19-page detailed report.

Additionally, we like to say that this project moved from collection development to staff development. We provided basic and advanced transgender awareness workshops for all staff, and followed up with department meetings that allowed employees to work through scenarios that were designed to encourage thought and discussion about potential interactions.

We have created a library toolkit on our website (www.oppl.org/media/trc.htm) that offers the full text of the self-study report, training materials, and reading lists–including our $200 Transgender Bookshelf.

4. Who currently selects materials for the Transgender Resource Collection? Are any trans individuals or organizations involved in the selection process?

I select the materials. There are no trans individuals or organizations formally involved in the process, but I welcome all suggestions and input from the community.

5. Where is the Transgender Resource Collection located in the Oak Park Public Library? Is it identified with signs and on library maps? Do people feel comfortable browsing this section of the library?

After much discussion, we decided not to classify and shelve the books all together in one place. Instead, legal materials are with the law books, health issues in the medical section. We didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable if they were seen browsing in one area. That can make the books hard to find, so we have created booklists and other tools to help.

6. What subjects are addressed in the Transgender Resource Collection? Are there any books or other materials that are requested for this collection that are difficult to purchase or get challenged by community patrons? What about magazines for the trans community?

The collection covers all subjects; it is intended to be an up-to-date collection of practical materials.  General categories include memoirs and personal stories; medical and legal concerns; performing arts and the media; and historical, cultural, and global views. We’ve been successful in being able to obtain materials that have been requested, and we haven’t had any challenges. We subscribe to Transgender Tapestry and Chicago Gender Society sends us their newsletter, The Primrose.

7. What publishers and vendors are known for their transgender resources?

A few of our favorite publishers and vendors are Routledge, Duke University, Seal Press, Manic D, and Frameline for documentary DVDs. We miss Haworth Press.

8. As a librarian and a book lover, what is your opinion on EBooks? Do you own an EReader? What about the library where you work—have they invested in EReaders? What does the Oak Park Library do with EBooks, and do they select any for the LGBTIQ community?

Oak Park Public Library hasn’t invested in EReaders. We offer a few EBooks, but haven’t made this a real library service yet. Our electronic resources administrator and I are working on this for our 2011 budget.

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

Remember how important it is for public libraries to serve, welcome, and reflect everyone.

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?

Sorry, but I just can’t narrow it to one: Transparent by Cris Beam and I’m Looking Through You by Jennifer Finney Boylan.

If you have any further questions about the Transgender Resource Collection, or would like to share trans resources with the Oak Park Public Library, please contact Bleue at bbenton@oppl.org

Rachel Wexelbaum is currently Collection Management Librarian at Saint Cloud State University. She is a book reviewer for Lambda Literary and has written articles and book chapters on LGBT librarianship.

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