Elizabeth Yates was looking for ways to make the Brock University Library more welcoming for gender-diverse students.
When the Research and Scholarly Communication Librarian found little research on the experiences of gender-diverse people in academic libraries, she decided to conduct it on her own.
Yates explained that ‘gender-diverse’ is an umbrella description for people whose gender differs from gender they were assigned at birth and / or for people who do not adhere to gender binary stereotypes of male and female.
“Gender-diverse people often experience stigmatization, prejudice, bias and fear, which can lead to isolation and discrimination,” she said.
To conduct her qualitative study, Yates interviewed transgender, non-binary and genderqueer students about their experiences, and perceptions of the Brock Library’s spaces, services and collections. She shared the analyzed data with research participants to ensure it accurately reflected their experiences.
Overall, the students Yates interviewed had positive things to say about the library. They express helpful and comfortable interactions with employees and appreciate when books are gender-diverse.
One student Yates interviewed said a summer spent reading books in the Brock Library changed his life. After years of avoiding exploring his gender identity and feeling ashamed, he now researches and talks about gender issues.
Students also expressed some discomfort in library spaces and its technology.
Using gender-specific washrooms is a particularly painful experience for gender-diverse students. They said they often receive stares and derogatory comments because their gender expression does not conform to people’s assumptions of them and the binary-gendered washroom they choose.
“Everything students shared with me is reflected in academic literature,” said Yates. “Data shows that 70 per cent of gender-diverse young adults are fearful of using a public washroom. It’s a safety issue. “
The library checkout process can also be an uncomfortable experience for students who borrow books to help them understand their gender and / or sexuality.
“The topics are often personal and sensitive to the person and the chances are, there is a straight cisgender person working on the desk,” said Yates.
Some students have reported being misgendered, which can happen through systems that use legal names. They described logging in to their library account or booking a study room and seeing an old name that does not reflect their gender identity.
Yates presented her research to colleagues and hopes her findings will help the Brock Library improve its service to gender-diverse students.
“We really care about our students and their experiences,” she said. “This new knowledge can help inform everything we do – how we interact with students at the ‘Ask Us’ desk, in classrooms and in one-on-one meetings, and how we manage our services, technology, collections and spaces.”
University Librarian Mark Robertson is grateful to Yates for his research.
“Elizabeth’s study is an excellent example of how research is conducted by librarians feeds back into the work we do in the library,” he said. “Libraries are about creating pathways – allowing people to inquire and challenge through information consumption – so, it is important they are accessible, diverse, equitable and inclusive.”
Robertson said the Brock Library is already acting on many of the student suggestions found in Yates’ research.
Many members of the Brock Library team have received training on sexuality and gender diversity, and the library has a working group on inclusivity, diversity, equity, accessibility and decolonization.
To address misgendering by technology, the Brock Library recently collaborated with the Registrar’s Office and Information Technology Services to ensure selected names and pronouns could be incorporated into library systems.
Self-checkout was reintroduced in 2020 to allow students more privacy when signing out materials from the library.
The Brock Library also continues to elevate the voices of underrepresented people by actively acquiring books by those authors and displaying them in library spaces.
Yates’ personal and professional connections to the Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual communities are what sparked her interest in the research topic. She has attended several Brock Pride Week presentations, is personally involved with PFLAG Niagara and is part of Brock’s 2S & LGTBQ + working group, which is a subcommittee of the President’s Advisory Committee on Human Rights, Equality and Decolonization.
“I’m grateful for the support of my colleagues and the students who participated in my project,” Yates said. “Being able to elevate their voices to help drive positive change is tremendously gratifying.”