08 March 2021

Non-use of preferred names - addressing a diversity, equity & inclusion issue in library systems

In this post I share some recent experiences at my place of work, where we've been addressing both technical and procedural issues relating to the use of preferred names, particularly in the context of trans and gender diverse library users. 

I was prompted to share this after responding to a tweet from a library sector colleague on Twitter.

I hope this post will encourage other library professionals to evaluate whether our systems are addressing our diverse communities appropriately. I would also encourage you to collaborate and step up to escalate any issues as a broader IT concern within your parent organisation. 

What prompted this? 

Late in 2020 members of our university's Ally Network were informed some students had experienced deadnaming (being called by their name prior to their gender affirmation/transition) in their interactions with the university. 

Why is this important?

According to Queensland Human Rights Commission guidance for schools and universities:

While accidental slip ups may happen when the change is new, continually and deliberately referring to a student by the wrong pronoun or a former name is discriminatory


Hearing others use the correct name and pronouns is strongly associated with positive wellbeing and can reduce mental health risks for students who are trans and gender diverse.

Most libraries in Australia will have responsibilities under discrimination legislation, but this should not just be seen as a compliance issue. Failing to provide safe and inclusive experiences both on-campus and online for staff and students is a failure to live up to the core values of our profession. 

What did we do? 

My team conducted an audit of 20+ library and corporate systems that make use of personal names. 

We identified that several important systems and services were not making use of preferred names. This included reading lists, interlibrary loans, and our primary webform for seeking help from the library. 

We then either made changes ourselves or requested the assistance of our identity and access management team in the IT area to enable use of preferred names. 

This then raised some broader issues. While the identity team could make changes in the systems that the Library owned, they couldn't make hanges in other systems without the approval of the owners of those systems. This meant, for example, that our library help form was not something we could immediately get fixed, as this had been built using the enterprise content management system owned by our marking and communications division.

At this point, we shifted the conversation beyond the Library to trusted colleagues in our HR and Information Management areas to work out next best steps. We all agreed that the university needed to address this issue in a consistent and comprehensive way. As this is a requirement under human rights legislation, we did not think changes should be subject to the conscious or unconscious bias of the owners of individual systems. 

After this discusison, we helped our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion leads in our HR area to escalate this to our Chief Digital Officer (CDO) as something requiring an all-of-university approach. It was helpful for them to have someone from the Library in the conversation who could "translate" the diversity, equity and inclusion issue involved in deadnaming into a set of requirements that IT providers could understand and take action on. 

Our CDO responded immediately and very positively to this initial request and within a few weeks a comprehensive systems audit was underway. Action is already being taken across the board to ensure the use of preferred names.  

What can you do in your library? 

  1. Reach out to the HR diversity, equity and inclusion specialists, Pride committees, and/or ally networks in your organisation to ensure you understand any legal, regulatory, or policy requirements. This will help you make the case for change with other staff who may not have a detailed understanding of how serious these shortcomings are in terms of the wellbeing of trans and gender diverse staff and students. In my case, this was the Queensland Human Rights legislation and guidance mentioned above. 
  2. Find out if your organisation has any internal diversity strategies or best practice guidelines for supporting gender diverse staff and students. Again, this will help if you need to request action beyond your own sphere of influence. At my organisation guidelines were already available covering support for trans and gender diverse students, and an associated guide to inclusive language and presentation for both staff and students. A further guide to gender affirmation/transition for employees was released around the same time that discussions about preferred names were taking place. 
  3. Conduct an audit of library systems to find out what names are being used and how (e.g. displayed online, within system notifications, email or SMS notices). This can be quite tricky depending on how names are stored and what other systems your library systems are integrated with. It will be much easier if you can find an existing library staff member or user with a preferred name (usually stored in the HR system) to help you out with this. At my place of work we were fortunate to have a staff member in our digital library team with a preferred name, who was happy to undertake this testing. If I had needed to ask a trans or gender diverse user for assistance, I would definitely have discussed with them the possibility that they could be deadnamed during this process and confirmed that this would not cause them undue harm. Alternatively I may have sought to establish a dummy test user instead, although this can be very difficult depending on your IT set-up.
  4. For systems owned by the Library, work as quickly as you can with vendors and your local identity and access management team to ensure use of preferred names. You may need to be patient in explaining the context for your query, as policies, practices and general awareness in some parts of your organisation and in other organisations could be lagging behind where you are at. Pointing your vendors and colleagues to some of the resources that you have gathered earlier in this process might be useful; don't assume that everyone even in your own organisation will be across the latest changes in policy or have a detailed understanding of the guidelines and how these should be interpreted in their own work area. 
  5. For systems not owned by the Library, work with HR diversity, equity and inclusion specialists, Pride committees, and/or ally networks to escalate a call for action. This could be via an appropriate committee or to the leadership level within your central IT division. Ask your colleagues how best they can take advantage of your networks and your expertise (e.g. in being a bridge-builder between technical and non-technical colleagues).