Beyond Sir and Ma’am: Gender Inclusive Libraries

Take a look at your library. What works in the collection are from LGBTQ+ authors? Are the public restrooms gender-inclusive? Is gender a category on your library card application, and if so, are there options beyond M/F?

These are just a handful of the gender diversity issues for libraries that we explored in a recent gender diversity training for public library staff. The presenter, Jamie Joy, from the Diversity Center of Santa Cruz County, provided an informative, thought-provoking workshop. Even our mostly liberal San Francisco bay area staff walked away with a lot of new information and actionable ways we could provide a more gender inclusive library environment.

Several points from the workshop stood out in particular:

Awareness of Gender Starts Early
Children generally begin to have an awareness of gender at about three years old. As one of our librarians pointed out, this is all the more reason to have gender inclusive representations in library collections and events like Drag Queen Storytime, where children can see and identify with different presentations of gender. Another librarian pointed out the power of passive displays featuring informational books about gender, especially for young adults who might be exploring and questioning their gender identity.

Language Matters
How we speak makes a difference. Consider how you greet patrons. Even a well-intentioned “sir” or “madam” can be alienating for someone you inadvertently misgender and/or identifies as non-binary. “Nouns are your friends”, counsels Jamie. Instead of making assumptions, try using the person’s name or collectively referring to library goers as “patrons.” If gender appears in the library OPAC patron record and/or library card application, make sure this includes a non-binary option, otherwise, consider making the field optional or removing it completely.

Think about how you address groups of people. What are some gender-neutral alternatives to “you guys”, “ladies and gentleman”, “girls and boys”, etc.? It can require slowing down and some careful thoughtfulness to change often ingrained gendered greetings, but even seemingly small changes like this can make a big difference in setting a welcoming tone.

Know the Legal Provisions
As library staff, we have an obligation to be aware of and educate ourselves and our patrons about current gender laws. For example, under a 2017 section of the law in my state of California, any single-staff public bathroom must be all gender.

Jamie also informed us about a big positive change for gender inclusiveness. In 2019, California’s Gender Recognition Act, SB 179 will require that all state documents, such as driver’s licenses, include a non-binary option. While there is yet to be similar legislation at the federal level, a handful of other states have enacted gender recognition laws making it likely this trend will continue. It is important for libraries to not only be aware of gender law in their area to ensure facilities are in compliance, but also to be aware of future legislation going into effect in order to make any needed plans or changes to library documents, policies, systems, etc.

Action Steps
Before we left the presentation, Jamie encouraged us to write down at least one action step we could take towards being more gender inclusive. It could be as simple as including pronouns on your signature line, updating the library card application form, or simply pausing before reflexively using gendered language in our communications. At the same time, it is important to commit ourselves to larger, systemic changes such as increasing gender representations among library professionals. Above all, Jamie advocated being patient with ourselves and others. It takes time to re-pattern our habituated gendered language and societal structures, and it is natural that we may slip up on a pronoun here and there as we evolve to a more gender inclusive way of being in the world. Assuming good intentions and keeping a continued commitment to embracing change and learning are crucial ways we can make inclusive library spaces a reality.

5 replies

  1. Awesome article! It’s so exciting to see these ideas being shared. This nb library student is very happy.

    This made me think of a thing I’ve noticed with changing speech patterns. Saying things like “girls and boys” can be a reflex, and, in addition to being patient with yourself, (which, excellent advice), self-correcting on the spot (while it may feel awkward) can go a long way to show that you’re trying. I had a professor who started saying “Girls and boys… and, uh, everyone else,” and that may not be the smoothest execution, but it showed that her intention was good, even if the habit is strong.


  2. Thanks for this article, I’m definitely going to share this with the rest of the Rainbow Committee at my library! Our municipality is starting a Rainbow Spaces program to identify places in our area that are inclusive and welcoming for all. My library is in the process of meeting the qualifications to be an official Rainbow Space (the qualifications include things like washroom signage, policy and procedures, and awareness training for staff).


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