Monday, 21 September 2009

letter to the British Library

a copy of today's e-mail to the British Library

21st September 2009

To: British Library

Dear Sir or Madam,

I have been looking at the way that books about transsexual people have been classified by the British Library using the Dewey Decimal System. Some decisions appear to have been made in the past that, to a contemporary eye, can appear at least questionable and sometimes plain wrong, as I hope you will agree when I highlight them.

Perhaps the best-known autobiography of a transsexual woman, Jan Morris’ Conundrum (1974), has been assigned to 616.85, Diseases: Personality Disorders. I find that in the British Library catalogue, the book is placed between two volumes entitled respectively Clinical Aspects of the Rapist and Perversion. Similarly, Duncan Ashwell’s book April Ashley’s Odyssey (1982) may be found between Adult Sexual Interest in Children and The Child Molester. There can surely be no doubt that they do not belong there.

There is, of course, a category for Transsexuality; though the position of that category within the Dewey system is itself questionable, as a sub-group of 306.7 (Culture and Institutions: Sexual Relations). Transsexuality is a condition related to gender identity, and not a mental disorder; it is not a cultural phenomenon, and has nothing to do with sexual relations. However, accepting that, as a topic, it has to exist somewhere, surely this is a section which should deal with the condition itself? There are books dealing with the medical, social, and even political aspects of transsexuality; and they are indeed in this section, and perhaps rightly so.

But I would argue that, in biography, transsexuality may be an element, and even an important element, of a subject's life; but it is not the defining element. And I am concerned that, by placing biographies of people with a transsexual history into the 306.768 category, those people are being 'othered'. This can and does happen in everyday life, where some people are too ready to see the 'transsexual' in the individual to notice that they are in fact just people too: and, in doing this, they marginalise, exoticise, isolate and even persecute them.

It was at least in part to address these concerns that I worked with Richard Beard on the book "Becoming Drusilla", and it seems sadly ironic that this book has been pigeonholed as it has been (306.768092), when the subject matter is as much the biographer as the biographee; and the book is as much a travel book as it is a biography; and, where it is a biography, it is concerned with a whole life rather than a ‘sex change’.

I should be most grateful if you would review the categorisation of these books, and the other books in your collection which may have suffered a similar fate.

Yours sincerely,

Ms Drusilla Marland