Research aims to help improve library experiences for gender-diverse students

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 her own.

Yates explained that ‘gender-diverse’ is an umbrella description for people whose gender differs from the gender they were assigned at birth and/or for people who do not adhere to the 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 with, 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.

A portrait of Elizabeth Yates, Brock University Research and Scholarly Communication Librarian.

A photo of Elizabeth Yates, Brock University Research and Scholarly Communication Librarian, wearing a navy-blue top with white polka dots and a white cardigan. Her hair is blonde and shoulder length. She is wearing tortoise-shell glasses. In the background are green tree needles and purple flowers.

Overall, the students Yates interviewed had positive things to say about the library. They expressed helpful and comfortable interactions with employees and appreciate when books by gender-diverse people are featured in library spaces.

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 speaks about gender issues.

Students also expressed some discomfort in library spaces and with 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 doesn’t 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 chances are, there’s a straight cisgender person working the desk,” said Yates.

Some students 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 doesn’t 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 her research.

“Elizabeth’s study is an excellent example of how research 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’s important they be 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 chosen 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 work towards elevating the voices of underrepresented people by proactively 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 community is 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, Equity and Decolonization.

“I’m thankful for the support of my colleagues and grateful to the students who participated in my project,” Yates said. “Being able to elevate their voices to help drive positive change is tremendously gratifying.”

Yates will be presenting her research in the first week of June at the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians Conference and the Atlantic Provinces Library Association Conference.

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