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Those lusty librarians

On-line portals can't take the place of the real thing

With Google’s plans to put all the books in the world on-line, why would anybody bother to leave their desk in order to read something nowadays?

Strange, then, that the idea of queer libraries hasn’t faded away along with newspaper personal ads. Yet there’s the University Of Western Ontario’s James Miller, wearing a huge smile and a very gay purple shirt, at the February grand opening of the university’s new Pride Library.

“Grand opening” is a misnomer. Miller started the library in 1997 in his own office with 100 of his own books. By 1999 the collection contained 2,000 volumes and was given a seminar room, soon overflowing. Last month’s opening was for the spiffy new location at the university’s DB Weldon Library, with its custom-made stained-glass window, comfy seats and oak shelves.

“It’s four times the space we had before,” says Miller. The Pride Library’s 6,000-item collection is separate from the university’s but is catalogued in the main computer system (the university even instituted queer-specific keyword searches like “drag queen” and “fisting”). In the virtual world, the collection is assimilated. That’s why the real-world space is so important.

“If the collection was dispersed on the shelves, it would be dispersed on four floors which would have undermined the celebration of queer difference,” says Miller. “The library is an affirmation of queer culture… regardless of whether anybody ever takes a book off the shelves.”

Last summer, like-minded queer activists in Guelph opened Out On The Shelf, a library and resource centre. Organizer Dave Vervoort says it’s actually hard to put your finger on what brings people in.

“Has the library taken off with regard to people taking out mass amounts of books? I would say no. Does it encourage people to come out of their domestic lives, to make connections? I think it does.”

In the UK, the National Archives just created a gay and lesbian on-line portal. Very high tech. In Toronto, the Canadian Lesbian And Gay Archives will include public spaces when it reopens at its new Isabella St location in 2007. Very bricks and mortar. But judging by how people use existing queer libraries, it’s the latter concept that might signal the future.