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Out On The Shelves: A library pivotal to Vancouver’s LGBT2QIA+ community

The volunteer-run library has been helping young and old accept who they are for nearly 40 years

Tucked away on the second floor of the University of British Columbia’s student union building is a volunteer-run library that served as an early impetus for the acceptance of LGBT2QIA+ people in Vancouver. 

Out on the Shelves (OOTS) was established on Davie Street in April 1983. Nearly 40 years and several moves later the library serves as the city’s oldest queer library. 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 library’s history and social significance. 

In the 80s Devos came to Vancouver with her partner who had children looking for information on a complex question: Should you come out to your kids? 

The couple arrived at the Vancouver Gay Community Centre Society to find the society had many donated books about gay and lesbian lifestyles. Eventually, with the help of the library-minded founding members, OOTS was born. 

A place for affirmation

A 35-year veteran of the Surrey Public Library herself, Devos recognized the important role the library served for the gay community, especially in an age before access to the internet. Devos recalls parents looking for support at the library who had kids who were gay.

"It was also just young people just needing to find a place to sort of reaffirm what they were feeling,” Devos said.

The library carried all sorts of titles, all available for free with a library card. Such works included the pulp fiction works of Ann Bannon’s lesbian novels and other more erotic books.

"Still it was the reading about the lifestyle that people kids, in particular, were curious about to put it that way," Devos said.

Not your typical librarians

Devos recalled the library’s 12 founders had some contentious issues to address at the time. The idea of older men having access to magazines that dealt with man/boy love was one you’d have trouble getting 12 people to agree on even today, Devos said.

In the end, though, the librarian ideals of non-censorship won out. 

“We basically made a decision that if you were alone and elderly in your house and a book like that was something you used in the privacy of your own home without hurting anybody else what did it matter to us?” Devos said adding the books were not given out to children.

It wasn’t all completely serious though as after the founder’s meetings were adjourned there was plenty of night still to burn.

"Then we would all go out to the pub after and part like demons until 1 o'clock in the morning," Devos said with a laugh.

Humble beginnings, big impact

Devos devoted 10 years to OOTS and through her volunteerism, she has seen Vancouver’s LGBT2QIA+ scene evolve and thrive. Youth would visit the library from Surrey, Langley and Burnaby, she said, all seeking the support they couldn’t find in their own communities.

"There was really nothing out there to tell anybody who felt that way what they were feeling was alright," she said. "I think it was pivotal actually, I think in a lot of ways it was pivotal 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 a lot of Vancouverites as a party everyone wanted in on.

“The original gay pride parades were very low-key affairs but over the course of 10 years they blossomed into a whole community," she added. 

Part of the reason behind the growth in attendance to Vancouver’s pride parades Devos attributes to another social change, the welcoming of those young and old into the community.

"It brought people of all ages together from the very very young like high school and college... to 70 and 80-year-olds who had been closeted their whole life," Devos said. "To see that blossoming to see these people finally be able 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 the library’s times and accessibility, feel free to visit Out On The Shelves’ website