The story of Vancouver’s oldest gay and lesbian library
Volunteer-run library has been helping young and old to come to terms with who they are for almost 40 years
Tucked away on the second floor of the UBC student union building is a volunteer-run library that has been one of the early engines of acceptance of LGBT2QIA + people in Vancouver.
Out on the Shelves (OOTS) was established on Davie Street in April 1983. Almost 40 years and several moves later, the library serves as the oldest queer library in town. Donna Devos was one of the 12 founding members of OOTS and took a trip down memory lane with Vancouver Is Awesome to talk about the history and social significance of the library.
In the 1980s, Devos came to Vancouver with his partner who had children in search of information on a complex question: should you come out to your children?
The couple arrived at the Vancouver Gay Community Center Society to find that the society had donated numerous books on gay and lesbian lifestyles. Eventually, with the help of the caring founding members of the library, OOTS was born.
A place of affirmation
A 35-year-old veteran of the Surrey Public Library itself, Devos recognized the important role the library served the gay community, especially in an era before internet access. Devos remembers parents looking for support at the library who had gay children.
“It was also just young people who just needed to find a place to kind of reaffirm what they were feeling,” said Devos.
The library offered all kinds of titles, all available free with a library card. These works included the pulp fiction works from Ann Bannon’s lesbian novels and other more erotic books.
“It was still the lifestyle reading that the kids, in particular, were curious to say that way,” Devos said.
Not your typical librarians
Devos recalled that the 12 founders of the library had contentious issues to resolve at the time. The idea of older men having access to magazines dealing with male-to-male love was one you’d be hard-pressed to get 12 people to agree on even today, Devos said.
Ultimately, however, the ideals of non-censorship librarians won out.
“We basically decided that if you were alone and old in your house and a book like this was something you used in the privacy of your own home without hurting anyone else, what was it? that mattered to us? ” Devos added that the books had not been distributed to the children.
This was not quite serious, for after the founders’ meetings adjourned there was still a lot of night to burn.
“Then we would all go to the pub afterwards and go our separate ways like demons until 1 in the morning,” Devos said with a laugh.
Small beginnings, big impact
Devos has dedicated 10 years to OOTS and through her volunteering has seen Vancouver’s LGBT2QIA + scene evolve and flourish. Young people were visiting the Surrey, Langley and Burnaby libraries, she said, all seeking support they couldn’t find in their own community.
“There was really nothing to say to anyone who felt this way what they felt was good,” she said. “I think it was essential actually, I think in a lot of ways it was essential for Vancouver at least… it was an essential part of Vancouver being very accepting of the gay community.”
Although Devos says there were elements in Vancouver that wanted to downplay the city’s gay pride, she says the pride parades were seen by many Vancouverites as a party everyone wanted to participate in.
“The first gay pride parades were a very low-key affair, but over the past 10 years they’ve grown into an entire community,” she added.
Part of the reason behind the growth in attendance at the Vancouver Pride parades, Devos attributes to another social change, welcoming these young and old into the community.
“It brought people of all ages together, from the very young like high school and college … to people in their 70s and 80s who have been locked up their entire lives,” Devos said. “Seeing it blossom to see these people finally get to come out and be proud of the life they’ve lived for all these years, so that was really reaffirming.”
For more information on library hours and accessibility, do not hesitate to visit The Out On The Shelves website.