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April 5, 2006

Books and blossoms

By Daniela Simunac

On the coffee table in the Pride Library rest several potted orchids. A book, How to Grow Orchids, is positioned in front of them.

The entire library is awash in purple and olive. The purple orchids match the throw pillows on the green velvety couches. A student is sitting at a table reading a book. Another sits at the front desk typing on the computer. Another is on the couch observing.

It's nine o'clock in the morning, a time when some students are still sleeping.

James Miller, founder of the Pride Library, ought to know something about nurture and growth. His library, the first and only to foster gay and lesbian studies at a Canadian university, has flourished to a collection exceeding 120 shelves and 5,000 volumes in nine years.

James Miller
Photo by Rob Turner
As James Miller checks his e-mails in his new office, literary giants, including Shakespeare and Dante, look on.

Nine years ago, the collection amounted to a couple of shelves of books in Miller's office space on one of three detached third floors at University College, a building located in the hub of campus, but difficult for newcomers to find.

Nine years ago, the library, still administratively independent from the University of Western Ontario, didn't have any circulating privileges. Miller allowed students to use his office space as a reading room when they wanted to make use of the materials, many of which were donated by him.

Nine years ago, the library began growing so rapidly that Miller's office space wasn't big enough. Another couple of offices were eventually made available at University College to accommodate the budding collection. Still, you could barely see his desk.

The library was cramped.

Today, the library is located on the main floor of the D. B. Weldon Library in an area "heavily populated by students of every persuasion," according to Miller. Students can now comfortably read the materials in the space or they can sign them out for a two-week loan.

Most, however, choose to spend their time at the library when they can.

"It's not simply a place where one comes in just to do work. People want to come in."

The changes are partly thanks to a donation of $50,000 from the university's administration last spring. It's the first substantial funding the library has ever received.

Up until that point, the entire collection had been donated to the zero-budget library. Many of the resources have been donated by Miller himself and the donations keep coming in.

"The love of having such a space has sustained the library even without a big fat bank account."

But, "the big evolutionary leap," as Miller calls it, was the transformation of the library into a circulating collection. The funding helped put the books "in a position to be used, rather than just collected and put on a shelf."

According to library statistics, the books are being used. Within two weeks of opening the stacks for circulation, approximately 200 books were circulating, which is "a remarkably large number of books considering the size of the collection."

Part of the instant success of the library is attributed to "the pent-up yearning of the people who have used the library in the past" and now get to familiarize themselves with the materials. Miller's received congratulatory and appreciative emails from around the world, including parts of the United States and Brazil.

UWO Pride Library
Photo by Rob Turner
A Western student enjoys reading materials in the comfortable library setting.

Miller, a professor of modern languages and literatures, said his utmost pride at the library is the multi-lingual book collection, which caters to a global community. "I'm very, very proud of our literature collection, particularly because it's not just in English." More than 15 languages are represented in the collection.

"I want that multi-lingual diversity to continue."

When asked why materials pertaining to gay and lesbian studies belong in their own facility, Miller points out that many parts of the library have their own section, including government publications, reference stacks and First Nations works.

"(Some) think that we're keeping the people out as opposed to opening the door."

He says that just because it's apart from the rest of the library doesn't mean that it's exclusionary. "Quite the reverse, the doors are always open."

And a variety of people are walking in through the doors. Some of them are from outside the Western community.

Once, a high school student walked in with his teacher. They were working on a sexual awareness raising project.

"I remember the expression of wonder on the student's face on queer subjects and also the teacher was also clearly very pleased to be able to bring that student here."

Visitors, such as the high school student, can make full use of the library now since "queer-specific" lingo is registered in the library catalogue's search engine. For example, when you search for the keyword "closet case," 30 works appear, all of which can be found in the Pride Library.

These changes say quite a lot about London, Ont. Colleagues at other universities have told Miller they have a difficult time believing these changes are taking place in the Forest City. But Miller's not surprised.

"People are going to have to modify their understanding of Western," he said. "Western is keeping in stride with the rest of the social and cultural movements in Ontario."

And the Forest City has been quick to sprout a few new blossoms.

"In less than a decade, (London) has dramatically altered."

The stained glass window, located at the front of the library, pays tribute to local gay activism movements of the recent past with homage to the Homophile Association of London, Ontario (HALO). Although the association officially disbanded last year, its legacy lives on, thanks to London artist Lynette Richards who spent 2 1/2 months designing and constructing the glass.

The window displays the Pride Library logo - a set of vertically standing books, each in a different colour of the rainbow - which is supported by the HALO logo in the form of a bookend.

Appropriate, considering HALO supported the library with a number of donations over the years.

The window, etched with names of gay and lesbian authors, also harks back to the distant past. International gay activism movements stem from, as the window suggests, Plato's time in ancient Greece.

"When we look out through the glass we see our connections not only symbolically, but also to the community at large," said Miller pointing to the window that, quite literally, looks out to university students studying at desks at Weldon.

And a community is what it took to make the library what it is today.

"There's no way any single individual, including myself, could have sustained this alone."

Meighan Wark, Miller's former student and archivist at Pride Library, became involved when she was a student of his. She had already worked in a public library for six years.

"One of the reasons why I started working in a library in the first place was because, being from a rural community, you are opening (the public's) eyes to a larger community by giving them the power of access to information," she said.

"You feel empowered by knowledge."

Wark, a graduate student pursuing a degree in library and information sciences, said it's important for people to realize "there are people out there who are similar to you."

"Pride is about representing a community that wasn't well represented in the library community."

Even though she's got her work cut out for her ("I'm constantly shelving and constantly conducting reference interviews"), Wark said it's a pleasure to work at the library.

"You always find such a cross-section of the Western community at Pride." And the volunteers are "so darn excited" to work with Miller.

Wark gets the most excited when she sees lower-year undergraduate students walk in through the library's doors. They may have heard about the library, but don't exactly know what it's about and "see it as a regular resource centre."

Chantal Boileau, the library's officer of communications, has been lending a hand at the centre since Miller and his staff were preparing for the move. She said a variety of people make use of the material, including herself.

She says there are definitely some regulars, but there are also curious students who come in to browse.

"People will stop and chat with us here," she said. "It's a real positive environment."