April 7, 2020 at 3:26 pm EDT | by Philip Van Slooten
Regional libraries vary in LGBTQ content during pandemic
Anne Arundel County Public Library, gay news, Washington Blade
A contingent from the Anne Arundel Public Library marches in the 2019 Annapolis Pride Parade. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Anne Arundel County Public Library system in Maryland has, like most regional libraries, increased its digital content during the COVID-19 crisis. However, migrating its LGBTQ events to Facebook and other platforms has proven a challenge with most events being cancelled.

Last year, the library system’s board of trustees approved the 16 LGBTQ programs proposed by library CEO Skip Auld. Those programs included an LGBTQ film festival, drag queen story times, teen book talks with Annapolis Pride and more events mostly supporting Pride month in June.

“Libraries are becoming in this modern age a place where people can gather and talk about complicated emotional issues and build relationships,” Auld told the Washington Blade. “This has been a substantive change over the decades.”

Loudoun County in Virginia faced similar protests and controversy earlier this year when its public schools included LGBTQ books in its diverse classroom libraries program, as reported by the Loudoun Times.

However, neither the Loudoun County nor D.C. public library systems offer the breadth of LGBTQ programming provided by the Anne Arundel County system. And neither system has any LGBTQ events listed on their public calendars.

Auld’s LGBTQ programming approval was hard won with a few residents speaking out against drag storytellers as “inappropriate” for children. Later that June police removed protesters from a drag story time event where a library board member was shoved while 165 toddlers and parents looked on, according to a Capital Gazette report.

Despite last year’s controversy, Anne Arundel chose to continue and expand its LGBTQ programming to include Rainbow Family Storytimes, history talks, community discussions and film screenings to include 1985’s “My Beautiful Laundrette.”

“We’ve had a variety of LGBTQ programs each quarter,” said Stephanie Petruso, the virtual services manager. “We had a substantial amount planned for June. If we can’t open in time, we will reschedule them.”

Petruso did point out that the Kanopy digital movie service, which can be accessed through the library’s website, does offer a wide selection of LGBTQ content to stream for free.

“And the films we had scheduled for Pride month we could work into our Great Movies online series,” she said.

Petruso pointed out that these changes were a part of the larger digital migration that their library and others have made over the past 15 years.

“We’ve been offering digital content back to 2004,” she explained. “And it was really complicated to get ebooks back then and read them. The readers weren’t as accessible, and some people still like the feel of a physical book.”

A Library Journal article from 2016 noted the importance of libraries to have a visible presence on the web and shift access to the internet in order to attract more patrons and survive.

Before the pandemic, digital content was just an option, with many choosing to come into the library to take advantage of the free computers and wifi.

“There are still people who don’t have access to the internet at home,” Petruso said, speaking to the issue of the digital divide which is a problem exacerbated by the pandemic restrictions. “Our computers were busy constantly. We were loaning out wifi hotspots, which were incredibly popular since the launch two years ago…people who currently have a hotspot can have it until we reopen.”

Christine Feldman, the marketing and communications manager, worried about seniors with limited access. She felt it was important during the pandemic for the library to shift from merely enabling digital access to making a connection with patrons during this time.

“How can the library connect with you virtually,” she asked. “We’ve removed barriers for more people to access our resources. We now offer a virtual library card that doesn’t have any limits on how it can be used.”

And the response has been both positive and overwhelming so far.

“All of these resources have skyrocketed in terms of use,” Auld said. “There have been thousands of views for our storybook times on Facebook live.”

Petruso also said they built up nearly a thousand new customers on their new cloud library platform in just a month.

As for their LGBTQ programming, Auld said the drag story times will continue, along with the other events, the questions are how and for how long. But Petruso remains hopeful that the staff will adjust as they have so far.

“The biggest achievement for us is the buy-in and enthusiasm from our staff as we’ve ventured into new territory,” she said. “They’ve become more comfortable with Facebook story time. A month ago, if I had asked for volunteers to do this, no one would have gone on video and done it. Now, I have so many people offering to do it, and I have so many ideas coming at me, that we have to step back and plan this out.”

She said the staff is now eager to give back to the community and help everyone connect through the crisis.

“I think you can tell from what we’ve been saying that service is our reason for being,” Auld said. “As soon as we get reopened, we’re going to be looking forward to welcoming everyone back into our libraries and into our spaces. We’ve now built up this robust online presence and we’ll try to meet their needs.”

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