A Space for Pleasures of All Kinds: On “Cruising the Library”

By Emily DrabinskiMay 14, 2017

A Space for Pleasures of All Kinds: On “Cruising the Library”

Cruising the Library by Melissa Adler

A STAPLE OF the coming-of-age genre finds the young proto-queer in the library, thumbing through the card catalog or hiding among the stacks looking for books that will confirm her desire as real and shared by others. Alison Bechdel looks up homosexuality in the card catalog and comes home with Story of O. Audre Lorde fakes a permission slip from her mother so she can read from the closed stacks of books about sex at her local public library. Libraries are places of intense identification, but with what?

In Cruising the Library, Melissa Adler places the systems and structures of library organizational schemes at the center of the production of gender and sexuality in the United States. For Adler, library shelves are not merely rows of books, but formations that, like other political, social, and economic systems, govern and discipline gendered and sexed ways of being. This disciplining works in two ways: as a classification that groups work according to dominant ideologies of sex and gender, and as a series of controlled terms that reduce the vast complexity of sexual and gendered experience into narratives of the acceptable and unacceptable, the normal and the perverse. Thus, what might seem to be a value-free and democratic collection and arrangement of books is revealed by Adler as structured by very determinant, even hegemonic, epistemic frames that serve and are reinforced by the state.

First, library classification orders books according to discrete categories, and these categories reflect dominant ideologies of sex and gender. For example, books about sex of all kinds are classified in HQ, the Library of Congress classification for Family, Marriage, Women, and Sexuality. One could write many doctoral theses on those four terms and their order alone: men are unmarked while women appear only in relation to men; sexuality is inextricably linked to the family. And yet, the classification does a kind of useful work in collating like materials so that readers can go to the part of the shelves and find one book about homosexuality and find all other books on homosexuality in the same place. LoC classification usefully groups books about homosexuality in HQ 75–76.8 but places the books in close approximation to a range of other sexual identities and gender practices deemed deviant: Transvestism and Transsexualism at HQ77–HQ77.95; Sadism, Masochism, and Fetishism at HQ 79. These categories provide access to books on these topics: the researcher interested in sadism will find it useful to go to the shelves and find all those books shelved together. At the same time, the ordering of those categories shapes the way we understand sexual behavior. Books about heterosexuality and its variations are shelved together in the range HQ 19–30.7, and as the call number range progresses, the sex described moves farther away from normal. The classification reflects a heterosexual orientation to the world, conflating gender identity with sexual behavior while drawing lines between the normal and the different.

Libraries also describe materials using controlled vocabulary. Controlled vocabularies resolve synonyms on a single term. For example, weed, grass, pot, and ganja all become Marijuana in the library, relieving the searcher of the responsibility of looking for all possible versions of a word during a search. The vocabulary is also a syndetic structure, linking broader and narrower terms through cross-references and indices in a cognitive map. As Adler notes, the syndetic structure of subject headings allows us to see Baby bonnets as a narrower term under Hats, linking the two together and telling a story about what counts as a general term as well as how more specific terminology is ordered. Adler’s example is the term to describe materials determined to be “perverse.” Drawn from the medicalized discourse, Paraphilias (sexual perversion or deviation) is elaborated with narrower terms that include Lust murder, Bestiality, and Exhibitionism. Just as the classification structure tells an ideological story from the location of books on shelves, the descriptive vocabulary of the library is similarly informed: some kinds of sex are deviant and medicalized while others are not worth marking with descriptive language at all. The broader term Sex, for example, includes narrower terms for Group sex and Masturbation along with Paraphilias, but the missionary position goes unnamed. Normal sex is simply Sex in the library.

Adler identifies these twin disciplinary functions of the library as sources of power: not just the power of the individual cataloger, but the power of the state. The Library of Congress classification and cataloging systems are informed by their state functions. They emanate from the institution charged with primary responsibility for informing members of Congress, collecting and collating the sum of human knowledge on behalf of government rather than on behalf of the ordinary library patron. As its knowledge organization structure becomes the most popular structure in the world, Adler argues that the library extends the ideology of the state: “As the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States and the largest library in the world, the Library of Congress serves the U.S. Congress and the U.S. public and also sets the standards by which libraries around the globe are organized.” As global libraries take advantage of cooperative cataloging and classification structures that use LoC as intellectual infrastructure, ideologies of sex and gender are reproduced again and again at sites all over the world. The proto-queer searching for herself in the library catalog in India or Somalia will encounter the Gays, Lesbians, and Paraphilias of the US cataloging and classification structure.

Adler builds her argument in part through an overview of the history of the Delta Collection, a secret assortment of materials deemed obscene that Adler claims enforced norms around sexuality. As Adler notes, libraries have always had closed stacks or separate collections of materials that cannot be accessed by the general public. Sometimes these are rare or expensive materials, but they are also often “dirty books” — materials collected but not shared because of sexual content. During her research, Adler’s catalog searches repeatedly turned up a code for “Problem location.” While many of these books were indeed in the rare books departments, others were found in the Delta Collection. Initially established to cordon off sexual materials from a donation of valuable rare books from a Texas collector, the Delta Collection became the drop point for vast troves of obscene items collected by customs and postal inspectors during McCarthy-era crackdowns on pornography. Where distinctions about normal and deviant sexualities are subtle on the shelves, the Delta Collection demonstrates the ways libraries often build literal closets where they hide sexual materials from the rest of the collection.

While this work adds historicity and specificity to the claims she makes about the organization of knowledge at the center of American power, the conditions of subjectivity and sociality she describes are endemic to the project of the library itself. Books must be put on shelves in some order or another, after all, and controlling vocabulary requires the use of one term and not others. Adler offers no answers to this problem, sidestepping the solutionism that marks much of the professional literature in this area. This is, after all, the problem with categories: if we want to collate materials or selves, we must flatten differences and mark norms. As an engine of category production and boundary-making, though, the library also drives pleasure. Drawing on the work of José Esteban Muñoz, Adler reads the library as a site for cruising, reading across and against the hegemonic story of sexuality told by the library to find the frisson at the limit. Read perversely, suggests Adler, the library can be a space for pleasures of all kinds.

One can’t help but wonder whether the disciplinary structures Adler describes maintain their relevance in a digital environment where scholars and readers begin at the interface and not the card catalog, at Amazon rather than the library shelf. Does the Library of Congress still matter in the age of Google? While this nagging question goes unresolved, Adler makes a convincing argument for the importance of the legible text rather than the complex and privatized corporate algorithms that surely tell ideological stories too, just not stories that all of us can read. For Adler, perversity requires us “always to keep the categories moving, always to be open to possibilities for unmaking and remaking.” Such pleasure requires that categories exist in the first place, that we can locate them, name them, and cruise them just as we do each other, in the remaking of our selves and our shelves.


Emily Drabinski is associate professor and coordinator of library instruction at Long Island University, Brooklyn. She is editor of Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies, a book series from Library Juice Press/Litwin Books.

LARB Contributor

Emily Drabinski is associate professor and coordinator of library instruction at Long Island University, Brooklyn. She is editor of Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies, a book series from Library Juice Press/Litwin Books.


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