Our Campus: Out on the Shelves is determined to be a ‘centre of information’ for Queer audiences

Out on the Shelves (OOTS) was established on Davie Street in April 1983, at the heart of Vancouver’s burgeoning 2SLGBTQIA+ community, and is the city’s oldest queer library. After years of jumping from location to location, OOTS found a new home in the Nest’s Resource Centre.

Though not officially affiliated with the AMS, the library’s coordinators struck a deal with the Student Resource Group to occupy the space. The library’s location and collection have changed many times, but its core mandate — being volunteer run and dedicated to accessibility — has remained the same throughout the decades.

Redefining identities

“When we inherited the collection, it was largely white, gay, male centred,” Amanda Tolentino, a coordinator with the library explained.

It was a reflection of the times — other identities were still marginalized within the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Now, OOTS is pushing for the inclusion
of more lived experiences — its donation wish-list asks for books by authors of colour, as well as books featuring trans, non-binary, Two-Spirit and bisexual narratives. It also emphasizes the diversity it currently holds in its catalogue — poetry, nonfiction, autobiographies, graphic novels, children’s and young adult fiction.

The collection’s evolution over the decades has become one of its defining features.

As more stories are published on a wider diversity of 2SLGBTQIA+ experiences, OOTS has worked to keep up with the times. It is currently in the process of updating the literature classification system with the goal of being more inclusive and treating different communities equally. This reorganization project has expanded the traditional library classification system to include more identities within the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.

Tolentino explained that classification methods like the Dewey Decimal System are limited by their age and can be marginalizing as some communities were never given a place.

“You can see the biases of the people that created the system in the system,” she said. “When you create a new subject heading, it doesn’t mean that everything else changes. It means that everything going forward goes under the new classification, but you still have 150 years of materials that are classified under the same horrific conditions.”

Tolentino believes a more progressive system of classification helps to maintain the library’s goal of being an accessible and accepting space for the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.

Staying connected

After so many years downtown, being on campus at UBC has been a challenge for the librarians.

The original Davie Street location was at the heart of Vancouver’s 2SLGBTQIA+ community, giving it an important role in what was one of the largest 2SLGBTQIA+ havens in Canada. Having moved to a less central location, the library volunteers are concerned that the library’s connection to the Vancouver community is strained.

“I think it’s difficult because we are on campus, and we don’t want to become a library just for people who are on campus, or just for students,” said Anita, a volunteer librarian who requested to be identified by first name. “[We are] trying to be a community-led library.”

The volunteers make a concerted effort to work with the community. This ranges from outreach projects during the summer to participating in Pride celebrations. Though the library is open to any UBC student who is interested, its ties to the greater Vancouver community is a part of the heritage OOTS’s volunteers are determined to protect.

A collective effort

OOTS runs with a collective structure. There is no leader or president — everyone who volunteers is part of the collective and anyone can join. There are currently around 300 members, though the librarians clarify that there are only around 26 active volunteers, which is the most they’ve had since moving to this location.

Though the library has evolved throughout its existence, the current librarians are careful to keep the communal tradition of OOTS alive. For Tolentino, the library is a symbol of communication that is especially important for the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.

“[It’s about] making materials available to people ... I think libraries are always going to be kind of the centre of information — very anti-censorship. And this library is really perfect for showcasing that,” said Tolentino.

For Anita and Tolentino, the library’s value goes beyond the collection. As students, working in the library has given them invaluable hands-on experience.

“I don’t think people know how difficult it is to get library experience,” Tolentino said, citing unionization and few jobs available as prohibitive for students. OOTS provides students at the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, recently renamed the UBC iSchool, with on-campus work experience to supplement their studies.

What’s next?

Currently OOTS is still stabilizing in its new location. However, the volunteers who staff the library are always looking to the future.

Tolentino’s biggest hope for the library is to expand the collection of books for children and teens. It remains one of the bigger gaps in the collection, but she believes it’s essential for creating a safe space for people of all ages in the community.

The librarians are also still figuring out what the concrete identity of the library will be moving forward. Anita expressed that they need to put in “more work to understand where we came from.”

In the future, the librarians hope to embark upon more archival projects to document
the history of the library. They are also hoping to expand the social activities at OOTS. Several ideas have been floated — pub nights, knitting parties and drag-queen storytimes, a program implemented by libraries around the world. As of now though, the main concern for OOTS is finding its feet in a new home, while moving onwards and upwards in solidifying its identity.

“We’re always learning — both as librarians and members of the community,” said Tolentino.