Danielle Cooper, Toronto, Canada: “’Big Gay Library:’” An exploratory ethnography of the Pride Library at the University of Western Ontario”

"I observed that the archives were not only valued by users for the information they housed, but also for providing a welcoming, social environment that fosters information exchanges of a less material nature."
The Pride Library at the University of Western Ontario
Danielle Cooper is a doctoral student at the School of Gender, Feminist and Women's Studies at York University. At the LGBTI ALMS 2012 she will present on LGBTI archives and libraries as spaces that are not only notable sites for collecting, organizing and disseminating information but also provide room for socializing, networking and community building. We publish the introduction of her master thesis “’Big Gay Library:’” An exploratory ethnography of the Pride Library at the University of Western Ontario” in which she focusses on the Pride Library in London, Canada that she describes as a refuge from the rather conservative University of Western Ontario and the surrounding city.

What do you think about Danielle Cooper's observation that LGBTI archives are also valued for "providing a welcoming, social environment that fosters information exchanges of a less material nature."? How do you think could this aspect of archives and libraries be further increased?

To read Danielle Cooper's introduction to her thesis click "read more". If you would like to read her whole thesis click on the link provided at the end of the document. 

By Danielle Cooper

1.1 Chapter Overview

This chapter introduces the thesis, which is an ethnographic research project located at the Pride Library at the University of Western Ontario. The chapter includes background information on the Pride Library, the University of Western Ontario and LGBTQ grassroots information organizations. The chapter also highlights the research project’s underlying concerns and objectives and provides a brief survey of the upcoming chapters.

1.2 Background

You’re on the University of Western campus, it’s a huge campus, it’s not an exceptionally open campus, I would say, it’s a very conservative town...So the fact there is a big gay library is appealing for people from a community aspect – that they can come here and meet others.

(“Aidan,” Interview Transcript)

To other undergrads, or to people that I know better ... I call it “the big gay library.” And if someone then followed up with that, then you know “what we do is carry Weldon’s selection of LGBTQ materials”...I [also] like “LGBTQ archive” because it sounds very official and stuffier than the place actually is, it makes the place sound more professional...but it really is more like “the big gay library” because it’s more convivial than “the LGBTQ archive” makes it sound.
(“Caspar,” Interview Transcript)

Taking up a mere seventeen hundred square feet within a large academic library of over two hundred thousand square feet, “big” may not be the initial characteristic that comes to mind when imagining the Pride Library. In other respects, however, the Pride Library looms large: the space is aesthetically striking and represents a functional and symbolic purpose towards serving previously neglected LGBTQ community information needs.

 In addition to size and stature, “big gay library” is also a term of endearment and reflects Pride Library users’ affection towards the organization. Pride Library users feel a sense of endearment because the library not only functions as an LGBTQ resource but also as a “convivial” for community gathering. As a result, the Pride Library not only looms large symbolically but also emotionally in the hearts of those who use the library on a regular basis.

The Pride Library is located within D.B. Weldon library at the University of Western Ontario (UWO) in London, Ontario. With over 32, 000 full-time students, UWO is the second largest university in Ontario. D.B. Weldon is one of the university’s eight “information hubs” but also the largest: the collection contains over eight million items in print and microfilm and is considered the fourth largest academic library in Canada. UWO is also considered one of Canada’s top ten research-intensive universities and consistently performs highly in university rankings. For example, as Mayne (2009) notes, The Globe and Mail placed UWO first for “overall quality of education” in 2005, 2007 and 2008.
Although UWO is a large academic university, the Pride Library’s presence is particularly remarkable because of the university’s reputation as a site of white, heteronormative privilege. For example, my informant Riley characterized UWO as having a “vehemently heterosexual agenda.” At the most extreme, UWO harbours a reputation as a “party school:” in April 2011 Playboy magazine ranked UWO fourth in their top-ten party schools’ list. As the quote from my informant Aidan above highlights, many of informants view the Pride Library as both a refuge from these UWO cultural “norms” and one of the few places on campus they can actively seek out other LGBTQ people.
Beyond UWO proper, the Pride Library is also a major signpost in a city otherwise not known as a hub of LGBTQ activity. Although the London’s census metropolitan area ranked #10 for population in the 2006 Statistics Canada census, the city currently has only one gay bar. There are notable exceptions and LGBTQ activity pockets, such as the London Lesbian Film Festival, which recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary and the local chapter of International Court System, which is a royal-theme LGBTQ fundraising organization (see Chapter VII). In recent history, however, London has served more as a source of LGBTQ oppression: in 1997 an Ontario Human Rights tribunal found the city and former mayor Dianne Haskett guilty of human rights violations after refusing to issue a Gay Pride proclamation in 1995. 1995 also marks the year of the Project Guardian police crackdown on child pornography, which has been subsequently characterized as a “gay witch hunt” with sixty-one, primarily gay male “suspect offenders” but no child pornography charges ever laid.
Despite the overall “conservative” culture in London and on the UWO campus, the Pride Library flourished into a significant Southern Ontario LGBTQ activity site. As the section on the library’s history below details, the library’s existence can be explained due to a “small” organizational framework, support from the greater LGBTQ community and tireless activist energy, particularly from Pride Library founder and “head volunteer” Professor Miller. Yet, the Pride Library’s success can also be credited, in part, to the vision of several key UWO leaders, generosity from UWO and growing LGBTQ
visibility more generally. As a result, the Pride Library not only represents the struggle for but also the subsequent recognition of the LGBTQ community within UWO, London and beyond - which is, perhaps, the “biggest” feat of all.

1.2.1 A Brief History of the Pride Library
The Pride Library’s history begins in the nineties amidst the backdrop at UWO and London, Ontario described above. The Pride Library had a relatively “small” beginning in 1991 as source of supplementary course materials. That year, Professor James Miller created UWO’s first-ever class exclusively on LGBTQ issues. Professor Miller is a medieval literary scholar by trade but was inspired to create the course through his personal experiences as a recently out gay man and his uniquely flexible appointment as a “Faculty of Arts” professor. In preparation for the course, he surveyed UWO’s library holdings for LGBTQ content and deemed them inadequate. In response, he made his personal collection of about 80-100 books available to his students for browsing and lending through his University College office and lovingly dubbed the collection, “The Michel Foucault Memorial Library.”
By the mid nineties, Professor Miller stopped teaching his course but continued dedicating LGBTQ activist energy toward the Michel Foucault Memorial Library. The library grew gradually through private donations from the LGBTQ community. A notable early donor was Ed Phelps, a UWO archivist who not only provided an entire run of The Body Politic but also provided free appraisal services. In 1996, Richard Hudler and Joseph Couture offered Professor Miller the archival holdings of HALO on the pre- condition that the collection achieved official recognition. As a result, that year Professor Miller created the “UWO Research Facility in Gay and Lesbian Studies” with help from UWO’s Vice-President of Research. At the time of the official opening in February 1997, however, the facility adopted the less-cumbersome name, “The Pride Library.” During this period, the library had one volunteer and one work/study student and the space was open one day a week as a reading room.
Between 1997 and 2004 the Pride Library expanded with ever-increasing speed. In 1999, with a collection of approximately 1000 books, the library moved to the “Old Russian Reading Room” during a University College renovation project. This marked the first time that the library had a space autonomous from Professor Miller’s office and the introduction of the Pride Library’s distinct colour palate. In 2000, due to initiative from UWO’s head of technical services, Wendy Kennedy and University Librarian, Joyce Garnett, the library transitioned from a modified Dewey Decimal cataloging system implemented by volunteers and work/study students to full integration within UWO’s online public access catalogue (although the library remained non-circulating). In order to do so, the Pride Library secured funds to cover the cataloging fees for the then approximately 2000-volume collection via grants from UWO’s Committee for the Safety of Women on Campus. The UWO library system donated all subsequent cataloging at through a weekly quota, currently at ten entries per week.
The Pride Library’s donations and popularity continued through publicity from UWO’s online catalogue. In 2004, with a collection of over 4000 titles, the Pride Library was deemed a safety hazard. Through help from UWO’s provost, Roma Harris, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities Kathleen Okruhlik and Joyce Garnett, the Pride Library was allocated a space in D.B Weldon Library along with $65 000 in funds for renovations. Along with the re-opening in fall semester 2006 (the grand re-opening, however, was in February), the library became a circulating collection while maintaining access and borrowing privileges for the general public. The library currently holds over 5,000 circulating books, over 1, 000 rare non-circulating books and the Richard Hudler Archives and relies on a staff of approximately fifteen to twenty volunteers and four work/study students.

1.2.2 The Pride Library as an LGBTQ Grassroots Information Organization

Although the Pride Library currently enjoys official recognition and has received some financial support from UWO in the past, the library continues to run as a primarily volunteer-operated, grassroots institution. For example, the library acquires all materials through private donation and employs only four part-time staff through the university’s work/study program that are supervised directly through Professor Miller. The Pride Library’s history and current mandate also suggest a grassroots impetus: the library was created and continues to provide a haven for LGBTQ information materials otherwise ignored by the institutional and professionally-dominated library realm.
The Pride Library represents a legacy of within LGBTQ history for creating community- based information entities in response to the disinterest and deliberate acts of information erasure by the general public. These organizations include: the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, the June Mazer Lesbian Archives, the Gerber/Hart Library and ONE National Archives. According to Cvetkovich (2003), these collections have uniquely “queer” strategies, which are increasingly important to remember in the wake of increasing popularity for LGBTQ studies within the academy and the subsequent creation of academic LGBTQ collections. A major aim of this research project, therefore, is to articulate the unique qualities of an LGBTQ information- based organization located outside out of strict institutional and professional bounds. The Pride Library, represents a particularly compelling case study because the library is located within an academy but maintains a grassroots orientation.

1.3 Statement of the Problem

Although Library and Information Studies (LIS) addresses LGBTQ information needs, the focus of these discussions remain exclusively in the realm of uncovering information seeking behaviour and creating solutions for LGBTQ patrons within the conventional, professionally bound library realm. This thesis shifts focus towards a specific LGBTQ grassroots information organization – the Pride Library – in order to examine an LBGTQ community and organization-level response to LGBTQ information needs.

1.4 Research Objectives and Personal Statement

The main objective of this study was to explore and articulate the environment and activities taking place at the Pride Library. In order to do so, this study utilized the ethnographic method, which relies on immersion into a specific social context toward developing rich, community-specific insights. Due to ethnography’s position as an “emergent” method (see Chapter III for further detail), this study did not have a specific hypothesis, but rather, guiding research questions. These questions included: how do users perceive the setting and what activities do users engage in within the setting? More specifically, is this a space valued particularly for the concrete LGBTQ information resources provided or more abstractly as an information-rich site for networking and more social opportunities – or both?

Although the study did not have a specific hypothesis, it is important to note that the research questions and overall direction for the study were informed by my personal and previous research experiences. My curiosity about LGBTQ information activities can be traced back to my dual identity as a lesbian and a library school student. In order to satisfy both needs, I pursued Sexual Diversity Studies in collaboration with my Master of Information degree, which included a graduate seminar course in queer theory. From June to August 2010, I also participated in an internship and completed a preliminary ethnographic research project at the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) in conjunction with an ethnographic research course offered at the Faculty of Information by Professor Jenna Hartel.
            My findings from tmy ethnographic project at the Lesbian Herstory Archives (Cooper, In Press) directly inspired and deeply informed this thesis project. Over the course of my research at the LHA, I observed that the archives were not only valued by users for the information they housed, but also for providing a welcoming, social environment that fosters information exchanges of a less material nature. I also discovered that the LHA has a “queer” relationship to information, such as their “all-over” organizational approach and their value of “real live lesbians” and ephemeral materials. In order to understand these findings within a larger context, I decided to pursue another study with similar designs and concerns over a longer period of time. The resulting study about the Pride Library of Western Ontario, therefore, follows Stebbins (2006) concept of the “concatenated research approach,” where a series of field studies are linked together toward creating grounded theory.

1.5 Outline of the Thesis

Moving from the introductory chapter (Chapter I), this thesis surveys the relevant literature (Chapter II), outlines the project’s research method and design (Chapter III) and presents notable findings from the project (Chapter IV – VII). Chapter IV articulates the unique physical and aesthetic qualities to the Pride Library. Chapter V examines the Pride Library’s information materials. Chapter VI discusses the Pride Library’s labour dimension. Chapter VII focuses on the Pride Library’s users and the ways in which their use is made manifest. The final chapter (Chapter VIII), summarizes the major findings from the thesis and relates these findings to more general issues surrounding community autonomy and different spheres of library activity ranging from private to public. The final chapter also provides a meta-commentary on thesis, including reflections on methodology and outlining outstanding issues and questions.

1.6 Chapter Summary

This chapter introduced the thesis project, including relevant background on the project and project’s location, the objectives and research questions guiding the project, and a survey of the subsequent chapters that comprise the thesis proper. The following chapter will explore relevant literature pertaining to thesis project.


Cooper, D. (In Press). "Welcome home:" An exploratory ethnography of the information
context at the Lesbian Herstory Archives.  In P. Keilty and R. Dean (Eds.). Feminist and queer information studies reader.  Los Angeles, C.A:  Library Juice Press. 

Chidley, J. & Steele, S. (1993). The pub report. Maclean’s Magazine, 106(46), 249-250.

Cvetkovich, Ann (2003). An archive of feelings. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lorrigio, Paolo (2001, April 14). Playboy ranks UWO: It’s party time! The Toronto Star.
Retrieved from: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/975102--playboy- ranks-uwo-it-s-party-time

Mayne, Paul (2009, October 22). Western tops globe survey for eighth year. Western
News. Retrieved from:
http://communications.uwo.ca/com/western_news/stories/western_tops_globe_sur vey_for_eighth_year_20091022445031/

Statistics Canada. "Population and dwelling counts, for census metropolitan areas and
census agglomerations, 2006 and 2001 censuses - 100% data". Retrieved from: http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/2006/dp-pd/hlt/97- 550/Index.cfm?TPL=P2C&Page=FLTR&LANG=Eng&T=203&GK=CMA

Stebbins, R. (2006). Concatenated exploration: Aiding theoretic memory by planning
well for the future. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35 (5), 483-494.