Rachel Wexelbaum & Gesina A. Phillips
Colleges and universities offer access to a wealth of information through their print book collections, databases, and other research materials. Your public library may have access to some databases and research materials as well.
In the United States, libraries have pledged to uphold the secrecy of patron borrowing records (for more information, please see the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights and associated interpretation. If you are interested in a history of LGBTQ information in libraries, please consult the Wikipedia page for “Libraries and the LGBTQ community.”
LGBTQ Studies is highly interdisciplinary. This means that you may find relevant resources from other academic disciplines that employ LGBTQ theories and research methods, or that study LGBTQ populations, cultures, histories, and issues. Your library catalog is a good place to search for a wide range of information sources in various disciplines.
The online library catalog allows people to look for books, eBooks, media, online resources, and other content that the library owns or to which it has access. Visit your library website or consult with your librarian to learn about your distinct library catalog’s features and interface.
Physical items are organized by call number. LGBTQ-specific call numbers exist in both major systems; Nowak and Wilson identify and challenge LGBTQ Library of Congress call numbers (p. 5) while Sullivan identifies and problematizes the LGBTQ Dewey Decimal call numbers. As LGBTQ Studies is highly interdisciplinary, it is likely that you will find books on your topic in different call number sections.
Libraries often use Library of Congress subject headings to classify their materials. Searching for LGBTQ materials in the library catalog according to the subject headings simultaneously with keyword searching may retrieve more relevant results than with keyword searching alone. The librarians at Indiana University Bloomington have generated a helpful list of the LGBTQ Library of Congress subject headings which currently exist–this list will continue to evolve over time.
Students and faculty at academic institutions will have access to academic databases. Databases include Ebook collections, journal articles or their abstracts, streaming media (videos or audio files), datasets, or other resources. These resources are curated, organized, and described so that they are able to be searched with precision. These databases are often not accessible to anyone without an official user ID and password issued from the academic institution. Public libraries may provide access to some databases, and some (but not all) academic institutions may offer access to online resources for users who are able to visit in person.
Not all libraries have LGBTQ-exclusive research databases, but almost all academic libraries have general databases that index materials that support LGBTQ Studies. The authors recommend the following LGBTQ-specific and general databases available for LGBTQ Studies research at this time.
|General Academic Databases||LGBTQ Studies Databases|
|Academic Search Premier (EBSCO)||Archives of Sexuality and Gender|
|Alternative Press Archive||LGBT Life Full Text (EBSCO)|
|Alternative Press Index||LGBT Thought and Culture|
|SAGE Full Text|
|Social Sciences Full Text|
|Women’s Studies International|
Like library catalogs, databases often also use subject headings. Some databases have their own preferred subject headings for LGBTQ topics, so it is best to use those preferred search terms and subject headings even if they may not be familiar or the most acceptable terminology. Some databases still prefer the search term and subject heading “homosexual” to “gay,” for example, so you may need to include those problematic terms in your search within those particular databases. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) , which makes scholarly journal articles in multiple languages freely available, is particularly problematic in its indexing, as there are no LGBTQ-specific subject headings or preferred keywords. Using this resource will involve multiple searches using different keywords.
You can often find a link to the list of subject headings used by a particular database on the search page by looking for a link marked “Thesaurus”–your librarian should be able to help you with this if you get stuck.
LGBTQ+ Scholarly Journals
LGBTQ Studies-specific journals exist, though library access to these journals may vary. Here are lists of LGBTQ Studies-specific journals that would be appropriate for academic research:
- American Psychological Association (APA) Division 44: Society for the Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity has compiled a list of frequently cited, peer-reviewed LGBTQ Studies-specific journals: https://www.apadivisions.org/division-44/resources/journals
- Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Women & Gender Studies Section has compiled a list of frequently cited, peer-reviewed journals that specialize in feminist and queer research methods: http://www.libr.org/wgss/projects/serial.html
- Harrington Park Press maintains a list of peer reviewed LGBTQ journals, including non-English language publications: https://harringtonparkpress.com/lgbtq-core-research-journals/
- Librarian Annie Knight maintains an Open Access Queer Studies Resources webliography focused on scholarly open access LGBTQ books and journals: http://oaqueerstudies.com/
Databases usually provide an abstract, or summary, of an individual journal article,, but not all of them will provide the full text of the articles. Many libraries have systems which will link you to the full text, or direct you to request it through interlibrary loan, but every library does this a little bit differently. If you are having trouble accessing the full text of an article, contact your librarian–they should be able to help!
While the authors of books and journal articles analyze and write about the impact of laws, culture, religion, or other elements of civilization on LGBTQ people—or how LGBTQ people themselves impact those things—it is important to read and interpret those laws, policies, and original documents yourself. For this reason, let’s move ahead to talk about government documents and primary sources.
Laws, Reports, and Government-Provided Health Information
Governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the United Nations (UN), and advocacy groups all publish information related to LGBTQ populations. This information includes laws from different countries; NGO, UN, and advocacy group reports about conditions for LGBTQ people or how particular laws impact these populations; and information related to LGBTQ health issues, including HIV/AIDS, women’s health issues, and transgender health issues.
We often learn about laws or policies that impact LGBTQ populations through popular media. Journalists and bloggers often give a law or policy a short, catchy name, but the actual name of the law may be much longer. For example, the Russian “gay propaganda law” that people refer to in the media is actually a section of Federal Law of Russian Federation no. 436-FZ of 2010-12-23 “On Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development” called “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values.” You can find this out by conducting a search in Google or other search engines, asking “What is the real name of the gay propaganda law?” Once you use the official name of the law to search, your results will be more likely to come from official government or NGO reports.
Due to unique methods of organizing information in governmental and legal fields, finding sources such as governmental publications, bills, or court cases may require the assistance of a librarian. For more information about different types of government documents, please consult the “Government Publications” subject guide from St. Cloud State University developed by Government Documents Librarian Michael Gorman. You might also see if your library has its own guide on this topic.
In the United States, the federal government is the country’s largest publisher. To search for Congressional recordings, Supreme Court opinions, congressional bills, and other documents that address how the federal government addresses LGBTQ populations and topics, visit govinfo (https://www.govinfo.gov). To search across different government websites, use USA.gov (https://www.usa.gov).
To locate laws and government information from other countries, the easiest way is to use Google. Northwestern University Government Information Librarian Anne Zald also created this excellent list of foreign government websites.
Governments often provide health information to the public, including health information for or about LGBTQ people. The easiest way to locate this information online is through Google or other search engines using the following search string:
site:.gov health LGBT*
Some countries’ government websites use the .gov domain (as opposed to .com, .org, or a country-specific domain such as .ca). If you are interested in government health information for or about LGBTQ people in other countries, you can try adding the name of the country to the above search string. If you are unable to locate anything that way, search within the government’s official website for more information.
The United Nations provides statistics and reports about LGBT demographics, health, laws, and human rights abuses. The search string “united nations LGBT*” will retrieve information from the UN about resolutions and reports on LGBT issues worldwide. Other non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups may also provide similar reports.
Sometimes LGBTQ people will seek out legal or medical advice for personal matters from library resources. While the library can assist people in locating laws, policies, and health information, only lawyers or doctors can provide counsel for legal or medical decisions. Please consult with an LGBTQ-friendly lawyer, medical professional, NGO, or advocacy group to assist with personal legal or medical issues.
Sometimes you need to find primary sources for your topic. In LGBTQ Studies research, we depend on primary sources to see firsthand how LGBTQ people existed in the past and currently exist in the present. Primary sources can exist in physical and digital formats. Archives are curated collections of primary sources which are preserved for their historical or cultural significance. Archives are organized, curated, and described by archivists and other archival workers. Watch this video about One Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles to get an idea of what LGBTQ archives do and what they collect.
Archival LGBTQ content is important for several reasons. It is often important to gain some historical perspective on the topic you are studying, in order to inform your research and prevent ahistorical claims from sneaking into your argument. Archival material can fill in some of those gaps by allowing you to look at things like first-hand accounts, photographs, audio-visual material, contemporary reactions to people and ideas, and ephemera (e.g. buttons, flyers, posters, and other objects). Another reason that archives are important for research is that they collect together materials based on some shared characteristic (e.g. they all belonged to one person, or they document a particular event, time period, movement, or organization). This allows the researcher to encounter multiple archival objects alongside related objects, and thereby gain some historical or thematic perspective. Objects from LGBTQ-specific archives may also expose you to content in individuals’ own voices, which can add another dimension to your acquisition of knowledge about a topic.
Archives dedicated to LGBTQ material exist around the world. To find LGBTQ-related archives, IHLIA LGBT Heritage of Amsterdam maintains an extensive list of links to LGBTQ archives from around the world. Sometimes, archives without an LGBTQ focus will create special exhibits related to LGBTQ individuals and content in their collections as well.
Archives are often collections of physical materials, digital content, or both. Often, one will visit a physical archive in person to review materials. Many archives make information about their materials available online so that you can decide whether the content is likely to be relevant to your project. If you are a student at a college or university, check with your library–your institution may have archival collections of its own. Digital archives offer more access, but keep in mind that the digital collection might not include everything from the physical collection.
The following resources are good places to begin searching for digital primary source materials:
- Library of Congress Digital Collections: LGBTQ+ Studies Research Guide: https://www.loc.gov/rr/main/lgbtq/lgbtqgeneralguide/digitalcollections.html
- IHLIA LGBT Heritage: Open Up! Project–primary source materials from European LGBTQ organizations with a focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union–free to use but requires an IHLIA account: https://www.ihlia.nl/collection/open-up/?lang=en
- OutHistory.org, created by pioneering LGBT historian Jonathan Ned Katz, is an online digital archive of primary source LGBTQ materials: http://outhistory.org/
A Note on Search Engines
Databases and library catalogs collect and organize a specific set of resources for research purposes which can be accessed through browsing or searching. Search engines do not curate or organize information at all. Instead, a search engine such as Google uses the keywords that you input to search publicly accessible internet content. This is why a search in Google will result in hundreds of thousands of results on a topic including shopping sites, blogs, and news sites of varying quality, whereas your database search will generally return a smaller set of more specific results.
When discussing search, it is impossible to ignore the role of Google and Google Scholar. See the section “Biases and LGBTQ Information Availability” for more information about algorithmic bias at work when you search for information. Remember also that data is collected about you when you interact with most online platforms, and that data is valuable; Google isn’t the only offender, but as a company it has an enormous reach. If you are interested in search engines with better privacy practices, view this list of search engines that take user privacy and safety into account.
With those caveats in mind, Google remains the most frequently used search engine in the world. To keep up to date on Google search strategies, tools, and features, please refer to the Google Support Center, as well as the Google Advanced Search page. Helpful articles from online magazines LifeHack and PC Mag also provide great Google tricks.
Google Scholar is a popular and accessible search engine for retrieving abstracts, full text scholarly journal articles, ebooks, and government and non-profit organization reports. For a complete rundown on Google Scholar features and how to use the tool, visit the Google Scholar Search Tips page.
Social Media for LGBTQ Studies Research
For LGBTQ topics, social media may be a good source of information. You might be surprised to learn that researchers, scholars, activists, and others that you might encounter during your research may also be active on social media. Blogs, Twitter, or YouTube can help you find emerging research in the field. Researchers and scholars may post presentation materials from academic conferences, scholarly journal articles, book recommendations, or critiques of other people’s research. Social media can help students and new people in an academic or professional field to get to know other researchers and relevant organizations in their field. These researcher and organization accounts might also point you toward job postings, graduate programs, or conferences. Social media can also have its dark side; harassment and algorithmic bias are problems which you should be aware of if you decide to work with social media for research purposes.
One can conduct basic keyword searches or tag/hashtag searches on most social media platforms. Twitter in particular has sophisticated Advanced Search features. As LGBTQ terminology and acronyms vary, it may be necessary to repeat the hashtag search for the most comprehensive results.
How to Use Content Retrieved from Social Media
Conducting academic research using social media brings a unique set of challenges. Although these conversations are happening in public, they are not necessarily public statements (think about the difference between a conversation you have in a public place versus a conversation you would want a researcher to quote without your knowledge!). Consider the following when using social media for research.
- What is the source of the content? The researcher should be mindful of whether they’re quoting an individual, a non-profit organization, a for-profit organization, a news agency, a government source, or some other source. Like with any source, the researcher must evaluate the source in terms of its authority on the issue at hand, potential sources of bias, and other questions such as those found in the Evaluating Information Sources section and associated resources (such as the Penn State Evaluating Information rubric).
- How can I use this content? Researchers should remember that not all social media networks are public. A post that appears within one researcher’s social media feeds may be viewable only by certain accounts. Even users with public social media presence may have some expectation that their posts will not be republished without their consent [“Scientists propose tactics for ethical use of Twitter data in research studies”]. If your research project will be published in a public forum where others could see this content, it is good practice to contact the creator, inform them of your research project, and ask permission to use their content. User-created content may also be protected by copyright. The University of Michigan Library provides information on what types of video are appropriate to use for openly published research projects, as well as where to find those videos.
In addition to these more socially focused platforms, there is another platform with a highly social infrastructure that is designed for information creation and research: Wikipedia.
Wikipedia for LGBTQ Studies Research
Wikipedia can serve as a starting point for research on LGBTQ topics. It is also a major source of information for many people, including researchers who do not have access to databases or research libraries. We will now explain how to use Wikipedia to research LGBTQ topics.
Locating LGBTQ Wikipedia Content
An efficient way to search for LGBTQ+ Wikipedia content is to visit the LGBT Portal. The Portal compiles LGBTQ-related news and has a section for daily featured LGBTQ content. The Categories section provides a useful way to browse LGBTQ+ subjects in Wikipedia.
Evaluation of LGBTQ Wikipedia Content
To evaluate the content of a Wikipedia article, one must first understand how knowledge production works on Wikipedia. Contrary to popular belief, not everything gets published on Wikipedia. Wikipedia editors strive to meet certain expectations for an article. Reviewers identify articles that need editing or that they believe should be deleted, and creators can then defend the article or help improve it well enough so that it can remain in WIkipedia. This process has its shortcomings, however. For example, articles about important yet under-documented individuals or topics (including articles about LGBTQ people of color and LGBTQ people from non-English speaking countries) may be marked for deletion due to the lack of published information about them, despite their importance to the LGBTQ community or the world. For more on bias in Wikipedia, please see Wikipedia’s own page on systematic bias.
When a relevant article exists and is identified, you must review several parts of the article to determine whether or not the content is appropriate for academic research. Author Rachel Wexelbaum has developed a subject guide on how to evaluate WIkipedia articles for research.
When you find instances of bias or underrepresentation on Wikipedia, remember that you can participate in the process! As Wikipedia is a living resource that depends on global community participation and collaboration, students and professors can put their LGBTQ Studies research skills to good use by adding information to existing articles, creating articles, an improving partial “Start” or “Stub” articles.