Back in March I got an E-mail from Stephanie Sawah. This U of T student was starting up a project that I knew had a defined outcome irrespective of the facts: Proving that the Yorkville branch of the Toronto Public Library was failing to serve the most downtrodden group since Jews in Buchenwald, namely transgenders.
After a lot of prodding, Sawah sent along her findings in an absurd double-spaced, single-column PDF, which I turned into what it should have been all along – real HTML – for her.
The paper hasn’t been published yet, but, since I assume it will be used as a bludgeon to shame TPL, I thought I would get out ahead of things and document Sawah’s inaccuracies. I would certainly suggest that she and her transgendered friends (again: the most downtrodden group of the 21st century) think twice about weaponizing this “research” against the library.
Sawah and I couldn’t agree to meet, but we exchanged various electronic mail, including this one (mildly copy-edited):
The current research project I am working on aims to analyze whether the “T” is adequately addressed in the LGBT Collection at Toronto Public Library’s Yorkville branch.
I see a few problems with your premise.
Browsing is important (so much so that a now-resigned Boardmember’s proposal to simply warehouse half of TPL’s books was sent down the shitter where it belonged). Subject-specific collections have to be housed somewhere (in some cases, in more than one branch). But if your concern is Yorkville’s adequacy of addressing transgenders, we’d have to start with an analysis of transgenders’ reading habits. Do they actually borrow books and read them?† Or is this another transgender demand that we pay obeisance to them in some way?
To expand on that, I imagine some newly-minted FTM or equivalent sashaying into Yorkville with the burning expectation that countless transgender books be right there for zim to look at and leaf through. Anything less than that clearly constitutes transphobia. Doesn’t it?
A strength of an integrated library system is that items can travel to all branches. The one and only transgendered customer of Northern Elms branch has, in effect, the same access to transgender literature that someone who lives within walking distance of Yorkville does.
There is a proviso to that statement, though. The so-called LGBT collection at Yorkville is specially funded by a bequest, which you may not have known about. The bequest allows the Library to buy overpriced documentary DVDs… and to put in extra effort to locate items otherwise deemed not commercially available (e.g., Paragraph 175). They also have the budget to buy basically every single bit of gay and lesbian literature that is remotely in print, but a lot of it is uncatalogued – it’s assigned to YO in the system, but you can’t search for it by author or title. (You would want to compare that with two other cases – floaters and generic trade paperbacks.) For those titles, you really do have to show up to Yorkville and browse, because authors and titles aren’t listed in the catalogue. I doubt there are significant numbers of transgender-specific books in this category, though; it’s mostly paperback fiction.
Also, Yorkville does in fact have a copy of The Man Who Would Be Queen. I’m wondering what else transgenders might actually need.
Next, I routinely see transgender-related books at other branches. An insistence that everything be concentrated in one branch is rather at odds with big-city needs. It also buttresses the lie that “LGBT” is real or exists.
Further, as the single largest submitter of blue title-suggestion forms (including forms for many foundational gay movies), and as a veteran of the interlibrary-loan system, I know that any lacunæ in the transgender collection can be addressed. The process is slow, but it works most of the time. TPL also has no problem buying from small presses and buying what amount to self-published items “published” by Lulu.
I assume you’ve done a comparison (as by using WorldCat) between the full complement of transgender books available vs. what TPL and YO respectively carry. Full API access to those databases would help this process.
Also, and this really should have been the first question along with the one marked by the dagger above, is this coming from some sort of complaint from a real transgendered person who really reads books, or is it based on some queer political motivation, i.e., transgenders are the most-picked-on wavelength in the great rainbow and this is just further proof of that?
There was never a satisfactory response. (She wrote back some political positioning statements. Her actual research is embarrassing enough; I won’t publish what she wrote in E-mail.) Just the other week, I wrote her again proposing that her “research” had a predetermined outcome. She didn’t respond to that, either.
Sawah was never going to respond to me fully because she believes my attitudes about trannies endanger her self-care. Here as elsewhere, Sawah was disingenuous from the start. Whereas I say what I mean and I back it up with research. So let’s go through Sawah’s failings one by one.
Actual complement of books at TPL compared to the full roster of transgender books in print
Sawah’s first of many fatal flaws is failing to account for the actual number of transgender-related books in print that TPL could conceivably carry. Only then do you have any reasonable idea how adequate TPL’s collection is. You have to know what the denominator of the fraction is before you can pass judgement on the numerator.
Sawah didn’t bother looking this up, presumably because she doesn’t know how (as her computer skills suggest). Luckily I do. Comparing Library of Congress and TPL records for books (English-language nonfiction, 1980–2014):
|gender identity||1,499||182 (12%)|
You don’t need an MLS to realize that the overarching subject heading is gender identity. I included the other two as examples. (Subject headings for fiction – I did look into them – are too complex, scanty, and inconsistently applied to be usably analyzed here. Biography is another useful category, but I did not analyze it. Since Sawah has a preconception that libraries are all about books, neither of us explored cinema, music, or other formats.)
LC records include, in broad terms, every single item published by anyone who goes through the formality of registering copyright in the United States, plus the union of other catalogues. Many items are dissertations or are otherwise academic or too obscure to be reasonably found in a public-library system, even one that, like TPL’s, has branches where academic materials circulate well (Pape, Gladstone, Parkdale). Further, many items are actually gay or lesbian books (i.e., in transgenders’ view, the literature of the oppressor) that also treat transgenderism. An example would be Hilton Als’ White Girls, which isn’t about transgenders. (I know because I’ve been picking away at it for months and my third hold on it came through two days ago.)
To check my figures for reasonableness, I looked at other national libraries.
The orders of magnitude are, I believe, correct for the main subject heading because the British Library agrees with it – 1,013 results for gender identity (date-limited), plus 105 for transgender (all years) and 25 for transsexual (all years).
The much smaller Library and Archives Canada (48/5/11) and Australian National Library catalogues (414/49/129) give lower results, as one would expect. Those libraries’ figures are too small and divergent to really be useful.
Putting all those together, and using only one significant digit, you don’t have to be a Christian fundamentalist to conclude that a public library that holds about 10% of all gender-identity-related nonfiction books published in the last generation is doing pretty well, especially considering the size of the population involved and their simply unknown propensity to use the library.
Despite all the insinuations to the contrary, Sawah actually agrees that “based on the above empirical evidence, the library has current and extensive material.” You wouldn’t know it from her tone.
Where statistics cease to be relevant
Literature, as a human cultural keystone, is not subject to normal statistical distributions. Hence only an ideologue or an ignoramus would believe, as Sawah asserts, that “n a perfect setting, frequencies of ratios between lesbian to gay-male to primarily-trans to peripherally-trans material would be equal.”
Following from that misapprehension, Sawah actually alleges intentional discrimination and unequal treatment:
The large gap in percentage deviations cause me to conclude that staff and librarians are entirely forgetting (or consciously excluding) shelving trans material in LGBT books, or there is an absence of trans material in the branch.
(Except that, “based on the above empirical evidence, the library has current and extensive material.”)
Transgender usage of the library
If you don’t have a handle on this statistic, too, then your research is useless. Transgender usage of the library is utterly unknown and isn’t remotely addressed in Sawah’s paper. There would be straightforward ways to get a handle on this question:
File an access-to-information request for all records pertinent to transgender usage
Ask your transgender friends, as on the only place they hang out these days, Twitter and Facebook, assuming you can distract them long enough from their métier of harassing lesbian feminists
Sawah didn’t bother. I’m not going to, either, because I am not her paid thesis advisor. But really: How many transgendered patrons does the Yorkville branch have? Tens? I go there a lot and have never seen even one such person. That’s “anecdata,” obviously, but believe me, you can spot them even without the use of a speculum.
Pitting minorities against each other
Sawah’s comparison to the library’s Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection, housed at four branches, is specious. There are at least 350,000 blacks in the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area, or 21,000 Caribbeans and/or Jamaicans in the same area. Rainbow Health Ontario, which is really Transgender Health Ontario, could identify only 433 transgendered persons in the whole province. And that figure includes people who are transgender only in their own imaginings (i.e., who live in the same gender they were “assigned,” itself a bright shining lie).
As such, the Toronto Public Library has roughly one transgender book for every second transgendered person in the province, let alone the city. Hardly evidence, and certainly not proof, of institutional transphobia, as Sawah has the gall to insinuate.
(And where, one might ask Sawah, is the intersectionality analysis? What about transwymmyn of colour? Don’t these victors in the Diversity Olympics axiomatically deserve a well-distributed Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection?)
Similarly, Sawah whines that “TPL appears to be subsuming the ‘T’ under the ‘L’ and the ‘G’ ” (this is really how she writes), “where the latter categories receive unequivocally more attention than the ‘T.’ ” That would be because gays and lesbians outnumber transgenders by one or two orders of magnitude and our literature extends back to the dawn of civilization. It’s also because the gay and lesbian community is real.
Sawah’s other mistakes
As you can see, there’s quite a list.
TPL fails to catalogue over 79% of the items in the LBGT books section – most items in LGBT books cannot be searched in TPL’s online database.
It costs more to catalogue some items than to buy them. Mass-market paperbacks, romance novels, comic books, and many junior and intermediate readers are not catalogued, for example, as are donations. Many uncatalogued items also aren’t individually chosen; they show up via automatic-release program (ARP), which has its own drawbacks. Making the reasonable curatorial choice not to catalogue items enables TPL to buy essentially every gay and lesbian novel still in print and house them at Yorkville.
Further, many gay and lesbian titles start out with a few catalogued copies and, when trade-paperback editions appear, are carried in much higher numbers in uncatalogued form (two in my experience: The Metropolis Case; Hate).
the term “Collection” to describe the Collection is misleading because if one does not have a specific title in mind, then one is forced to browse the entire branch for materials.
This claim and others like it are false because transgender books all cluster around the same Dewey values. Stand at one bank of shelves and they’re all right in front of you. They aren’t scattered like maple keys throughout the countryside.
The factors that could lead to a skewed statistical analysis are: library users checking out items from LGBT books,
Listed as checked out in the system (true even of uncatalogued works, but that in practice is not a useful distinction because you’d need to know the barcode number, which you won’t).
items placed on sorting carts waiting to be shelved,
Listed as returned or on sorting shelf.
missing or stolen items,
Listed as such (trace).
and multiple copies of one book.
Catalogued items show number of copies.
In other words, Sawah had access to all the figures needed to avoid “a skewed statistical analysis.”
She doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about when it comes to interloans and blue title-suggestion forms.
As we don’t live under transgender fascist rule, the Toronto Public Library will not reject books for ideological impurity
Sawah actually writes the following with a straight face:
here is no balance in trans representation. Most of these texts depict trans people as downtrodden: things are happening to trans characters as opposed to trans characters enacting their own sense of agency. The lack of balance in trans representation reproduces marginalization because a certain image of trans people invoked – trans people as oppressed and alienated.
Then get your tranny friends to write books with different stories. The library will rush to buy them.
Libraries support freedoms of conscience and of speech, hence also a freedom that flows from those, freedom to read. Those are just some of the values upheld by the Toronto Public Library. Without freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, a library cannot exist.
If it were remotely legitimate to reject library books for the politics of their content, I can assure this greenhorn master’s student that gay, lesbian, and, yes, transgender books would be targetted. But as transgenders demand complete obeisance to their own ideology, other people’s freedoms, like freedom to read, are simply irrelevant to them. Actually, to a transgender, other people’s freedom is transphobic.
The library can, should, and does select and make available transgender literature, films, and other works. I would expect nothing less and will defend to the utmost any library’s choice to include such materials. (Or any lawful material, and in fact I can’t think of a limitation on that.)
The incipient fascism doesn’t stop there
Sawah explicitly demands re-education for Yorkville staff:
Every quarterly , staff ought to attend in-service training, as well as read excerpts from trans-inclusion resource guides – many are available, even within Yorkville branch! If a staff member has received a number of complaints from patrons and other staff, then there should be an accountability and restorative justice process where staff members come to recognize the harms done.
For the group that purports to be the most marginalized in modern society, transgenders sure love to push people around. And on that theme:
Sawah endorses a key transgender lie
The category “lesbian” features texts that explicitly uses the term “lesbian,” or describes subject matter that mobilizes the term “lesbian” (not necessarily female-identified people)
Lesbians are female. MTFs are male and cannot be lesbians. Their penises are not female.
“Gay male” is not a term I am deploying,
Because, to Sawah’s class, gay males are the oppressor. (Except “gay males” with vaginas.)
but a term that was explicitly used in all of the texts in LGBT books. In this case, books that are “gay male” are: books that feature male-bodied or male-presenting people on the cover and… explicitly say “gay male”
“Male-presenting” people in this context are women. FTMs are not men. Their vaginas are not male.
Meanwhile, parents are a heterosexual couple, yet the mother yearns for a gay-identified friend while her best friend who is female-bodied lusts after her.
This “gay-identified friend” is simply gay. The “female-bodied” best friend is female, not male.
Biological reality exists. If you want to write a book arguing otherwise, go right ahead; I will champion the library’s purchase of it. The facts will remain unchanged.
The single stupidest thing Stephanie Sawah has ever written
I’m going out on a limb here because I have not read everything Sawah has written. But what the heck! Nobody could really top this stinker.
Since… one has to physically be at Yorkville to browse material, this situation reproduces class and ableist hierarchies: getting to Yorkville costs money.
Yet we’re studying Yorkville branch.
Furthermore, not everyone is physically able to get to Yorkville, despite an accessible ramp existing at the branch.
Yet we have the Home Library Service.
The shelves are fairly high up
Yet reducing shelf height (which TPL actually does in branch renovations) forces librarians to throw out books and other items, materially altering the character of the library. (Short shelves result in undue hardship.)
Can’t reach a shelf? Lots of people can’t, not just a city’s sole tranny in a wheelchair. Staff must and will walk around with you and retrieve items for you.
and not all the materials are available in large print or Braille.
Not all of anything is available in those formats (all numerical estimates in that regard are completely ficititious), and almost nobody reads Braille.
Your scholar of tomorrow, Stephanie Sawah.