Strolling through downtown Raleigh, N.C., you’ll pass right by the LGBT Center of Raleigh if you aren’t looking for it.
There are two ways to gain entrance. One is a door in the wall of the historic Raleigh Furniture Building, which is on East Hargett St., across from the bus station and near the seat of state government. The door leads to an elevator. Take the elevator to the basement, and you’re in.
The other way is the stairs beside the building. Walk down them like you’re going to Sam Malone’s bar in Cheers, and boom! The center moved to this spot (its fourth since starting in 2008) in January 2019, leaving its old home on South Harrington St. when the building was sold to a developer.
There had been talk for years about creating such a resource. Many people had brainstormed and researched and dreamed. What would it look like? How would it function? Where would it be located? How would it be paid for? Raleigh has a thriving gay and transgender community, and the city is mostly welcoming. It is ranked the second best town in North Carolina for LGBT+ families.
As one person put it on a Raleigh subreddit,
“Folks here are Southern enough to wave & Northern enough to stay out of your business.”
The Center begins
A committee formed to begin the work of establishing the LGBT Center of Raleigh as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Committee members worked tirelessly for an entire year: They wrote bylaws, elected a board of directors, created a logo, and applied for the crucial nonprofit status.
When that application was approved in October 2009, the center moved from dream to reality. Hundreds of people turned up on a cold, drizzly night for a celebratory festival to learn about its goals, join an email list, donate money, and show their support.
Today, the center has a staff of four, a 10-member board of directors, and a $500,000 operating budget, with the library at the heart of it all. I visited back in March, about 2 months after the move, to meet Smote, the head librarian. The building didn’t look open for business, with boxes stacked here and there and networking cables dangling from the ceiling. Yet the air was electric, the center staff humming with the mission of the place.
Smote has been at the center since 2017, when they moved to Raleigh and started looking for an internship while finishing up an M.L.S. (Smote’s preferred pronouns are they/them/their.) They reached out to Erin Iannacchione, the center’s founding librarian, which led to the desired internship, followed by an invitation for Smote to stay on as the assistant librarian.
Collection and services
Erin and Smote spent 2018 preparing for the relocation. The two reorganized the collection, did some weeding (it went from 5,500 volumes to 5,200), and upgraded the catalog software to a LibraryThing product called TinyCat. It is entirely web-based, with good staff and patron interfaces. Smote especially wanted a system that would be easy for the library’s volunteers to use and for patrons to navigate.
Smote’s position is not full-time. I ask how many hours they spend each week on library business.
The LGBT Center has a staff of four, a 10-member board of directors, and a $500,000 operating budget.
“It honestly depends,” Smote replies. “It’s anywhere between 5 and 20 hours usually, depending on events.” Smote works hard on outreach and event support such as Out! Raleigh, a street festival that serves as a major fundraiser for the center. (Almost 62,000 people showed up for Out! Raleigh in 2018.)
Other events include discussion groups, book clubs, game nights, and movie nights based on the library’s extensive DVD collection, thanks to the center’s license for public showings.
The center has a number of initiatives, such as its partnership with the national organization SAGE (Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders; sageusa .org), which the library supports by having materials suited for that group’s special interests: healthcare, financial planning, and other concerns of the aging. Moreover, the center often hosts guest speakers, such as French-Canadian trans artist Sophie Labelle.
Smote offers to show me the library collection. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases line two walls, with rows of shorter bookcases in the center of the room. Sleek public computers, bought with grant funds not long ago, sit along a third wall. In addition to Library of Congress call numbers, most books have a clear or colored label:
- Red = bisexual interest
- Orange = gay male interest
- Yellow = lesbian interest
- Green = transgender interest
- Blue = queer/gender-fluid interest
- Clear = general LGBT interest
This content-at-a-glance approach is more like what you would see at a bookstore rather than a library. For Smote’s patrons, however, it is an essential feature.
Despite the uniformity implied by “LGBT,” lesbians and gays have unique needs, as do bisexuals, as do transgender people, as do non-binary folk. There is not a lot of overlap. Librarians thrive on matching users with information. That joy is heightened for these patrons, many of whom feel unsafe in a typical public library.
Smote tells me about a teenage friend who thinks she might be a lesbian. On her visits to the LGBT Center of Raleigh library, the girl has been “devouring” YA books with the yellow label. “It’s been absolutely great,” Smote says, “to see her find books that she can relate to.”
The collection is built from donations, mostly. People can also “sponsor” a book by buying one from a wish list. “I’m always surprised a little at the frequency of donations that come in,” says Smote. Some local LGBT+ authors have donated signed copies of their books, which reside in the library’s special collection alongside volumes signed by Labelle and Raleigh native David Sedaris.
Challenges and opportunities
As in a lot of libraries, the biggest challenge for Smote is space, which, unfortunately, decreased with the move. Looking around, I see how cozy some of the volumes are with their shelf neighbors. Smote gestures to the short story section, where books are jammed together.
Librarians thrive on matching users with information. That joy is heightened for these patrons, many of whom feel unsafe in a typical public library.
Exacerbating this problem is the need to grow the collection in certain areas. “We have a lot of materials for gay men,” Smote says, “but we need more nonbinary, queer, trans, and bisexual content.”
This highlights another challenge: keeping the collection fresh.
“Getting rid of history is never good,” Smote says, “but adding in the new and fresh books without overwhelming older, but useful, materials can be kind of a problem.”
I notice some other gaps. One is legal materials. Gay marriage, Masterpiece Cakeshop, bathroom bills, LGBT+ health insurance, trans people in the military — our country is a civil rights battlefield.
Another is manga/graphic novels. The collection has some, but it could use more. Young people would probably feel more comfortable reading it in an LGBT+ library than in a regular public library.
A third challenge is the age-old conundrum of getting patrons to return books. The center has about 20 checked out at any time. For a 5,200-volume collection, that’s a significant number, and if the books aren’t returned, it means less information for a community that really needs it.
Challenges facing the library are space, keeping the collection fresh, and getting books back from patrons.
This is especially true of nonfiction texts. Medical and financial information needs to stay available. The library isn’t taxpayer-funded, so Smote has little leverage. They are considering a one-time amnesty: waiving all fines if people will just bring back the books. I hope that approach works.
Despite these challenges, the library has a bright future. In 2018, it won an ALA Carnegie-Whitney Grant, which a staff member has used to develop a series of reading lists on LGBT+ banned books, LGBT+ immigrant stories, LGBT+ Spanish-language books, and asexuality resources.
Another grant let the library start a family storytime and expand its children’s materials, including puppets. The children’s collection is important not for its content, which isn’t LGBT+ per se, but because a lot of parents bring children with them to the center.
The LGBT Center of Raleigh has established itself as an important ministry for a vibrant but vulnerable population. After years of moves, perhaps it has found its permanent home.
Library services to minorities have come a long way since 1970, when ALA’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table, the oldest LGBT+ professional organization in the U.S., was founded. (At the time, it was called the Task Force on Gay Liberation.)
As the 50th anniversary of that founding approaches, Smote and the rest of the staff seem poised to make the LGBT Center of Raleigh library a vital part of the city’s community.