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TL v63n1: Breaking Down the Barriers
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Breaking Down the Barriers: Creating Empathetic Ontologies for LAMBDA Initiative


PhD Student, School of Information Sciences, University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Edwin M. Cortez
Director and Professor, School of Information Sciences, University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Public libraries frequently serve the role of an access point to technology for people who are homeless or who do not have access to these technologies at home and need the services provided by libraries. This role has become increasingly important in a predominately digital age. Homeless Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Questioning (LGBTQ) individuals are among the growing population of society without access to technology outside of the library. As an institution, the public library is metamorphosing from its traditional boundaries to provide a broader function as the heart of the community for socially marginalized youths. Public libraries have historically played a role in identifying social obligation and helping the disenfranchised become self-sufficient and productive citizens through inclusion and access to resources; a parallel can be found in the libraries' role in aiding disenfranchised LGBTQ youth. The library can create a welcoming, positive, and useful environment by using the social vernacular of LGBTQ society to create empathetic ontologies within the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC). Ontologies within the framework of libraries are shared vocabularies that connect the definitions of ideas, concepts and objects to their properties and relationships to each other. The Libraries as Models for Building Diversity Achievements (LAMBDA) project addresses the complex issue of educating librarians to the sensitivities of the LGBTQ community. The pilot program for LAMBDA is a joint effort of libraries within the cities of San Francisco, CA and Knoxville, TN. This paper argues that a constructed ontology is needed for this target group of homeless youths (18-25) who are LGBTQ; it describes how to create an empathetic ontology as a navigation tool to engage the LGBTQ community and its usefulness within the LAMBDA initiative.


Homeless youth, specifically those who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Questioning (LGBTQ), are frequenting the library in increasing rates. However, the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) often fails as a user-friendly resource. The search categories are often monolithic, academic and sterile; this tone has little resonance with vulnerable and disenfranchised youth. Traditionally, the OPAC is a product of many years of work in organization and by the time a vernacular term is adopted into the system it is often completely out of vogue. The reason for this is that the OPAC’s retrieval system is driven by a controlled vocabulary—an artificial language created for the uniform description, indexing, and retrieval of documents in a given collection. The primary purpose of the controlled vocabulary is to compel adherence to a standardized form of description of documents and of their subject contents. The same controlled vocabulary is then used to create an inverted file in which individual item records are posted to one or more of the controlled vocabulary terms. More often than not, the controlled vocabulary takes the form of a thesaurus, which contains standardized terminology, and is displayed for consultation in a uniform alphabet with an explicit hierarchy. Hence, this controlled, static engineering causes the OPAC to be static, process driven and less responsive to dynamic user searching needs (Cortez, 1999). Ontologies should reflect the needs of the patron. Although it is impossible from a budgetary and time standpoint to completely overhaul an OPAC for the caprice of youthful expressions, it is possible to create empathetic ontologies that could help LGBTQ youth feel welcomed in the library. This act of acceptance could encourage LGBTQ youth to navigate within the larger society and eventually discover their identity. 

The Issue

The homeless youth population in the United States is growing every year. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that the number of homeless and runaway youth ranges from 575,000 to 1.6 million per year, and between 20 to 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 2010). The reasons for leaving home are as varied as the individuals who become homeless. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (2010) reported, “Youth often leave home as a result of a severe family conflict which might include physical and/or sexual abuse.” A U.S. government sanctioned agency, the National Runaway Switchboard (2010), conducted interviews with runaway youth and found that runaways described themselves using words such as 

a lost child in need of help neglected
looking for a better chance traveler
living on my own street kid
I feel like I wasn’t accepted homeless (p. 9)              
I was disowned  





In the United States, there are more than eight types of government resources that service the medical and physical needs of the homeless youth population (Wood, Dunton, Spellman, Abbenante, & Griffith, 2009), but a greater portion of homeless youth mistrust the government institutions that have often marginalized their plight and reduced them to a statistic. Research regarding this population and LGBTQ youth is well documented in the soon to be published work of Julie Winkelstein (2012), who has been a key developer of the LAMBDA initiative. The LAMBDA initiative is a joint program to educate librarians about better ways to address and act towards vulnerable LGBTQ homeless youths within the library setting. However, the issue of educating librarians is complex and should also include education at the level of metadata and the construction of the OPAC. The OPAC problem could be alleviated through the creation of empathetic ontologies.

The OPAC, though a collection of controlled vocabularies and strict structure, is a product of the biases and thoughts of the original creators. Olson (2002) argues, “…the library catalogue is not a neutral tool. That it is constructed… [it] selects [social] values for expression” (p. 2). The evidence of bias (sexism and racism) within the library cataloguing system is well documented within scholarship. Since the 1970s, authors such as Foskett (1984), Marshall (1972), Berman (1984) and Chatman (1996) have addressed this issue. Chatman (1996) and Olson (2002) engage the ongoing discourse by building on the assertion that those who are information poor are excluded from our information systems. Olson (2002) takes it one step further by convincingly arguing, “…subject access to information outside of our traditional cultural mainstream and for groups marginalized in our society is disproportionately affected by the fundamental presumptions on which our practice of subject representation rests” (p. 15). The homeless LGBTQ youth are excluded from the information systems Olson describes.

Opening a dialogue between LGBTQ patrons and the OPAC is essential for the homeless youth to feel welcome in the library. Budd, Hill and Shannon (2010) argue, “the basics of the dialectic entail recursive interaction between society and the individual” (p. 279), and a dialogue will open when the underserved population feels welcomed in the library environment. An ontology that addresses the needs of this population is needed. Ontologies are important in conveying societal norms. “Society carries its own ontological meaning” (Budd et al., 2010, p. 271). This is why it is important to use language in the ontology that LGBTQ youth are comfortable with.

Constructing a Crosswalk Ontology

A crosswalk ontology, a tool to connect an existing ontology with new terms without altering the original ontology, can be constructed through practical application of Winkelstein’s (2012) research of common word usage as obtained from interviews of homeless LGBTQ youths and using Noy and McGuinness’ (2001) model of creating an ontology for a declarative frame-based systems. The domain is defined as the ways in which LGBTQ youth refer to themselves or their situation, with the scope being the topics most commonly searched for by LGBTQ youth. Utilizing a top down approach, the ontology is built with the common search term and referenced by words from Winkelstein’s interviews of natural speech. 

For instance, the search for sexual identity is followed by preferred gender pronoun and subdivided into lesbian, queer and gay; bisexual, transsexual and homosexual; questioning and heterosexual. Figure 1 illustrates this concept. 

Figure 1. Identity search with adjusted ontology 










In this approach, identity mirrors how LGBTQ youth see themselves and affirms their connection to the community. Another purpose is to gain back trust for governmental programs, society in general, and to create relationships with those who are potential friends and allies. For instance, the search for trust is followed by relationships and subdivided into emancipated youth, adult ally and juvenile justice. Figure 2 illustrates this concept. 
Figure 2. Trust search with alternate ontology











Identity and attitudes are important facets of homeless LGBTQ youths’ perspective, but these youth also face practical needs such as permanent housing. A proposed search for housing is followed by shelter and subdivided into group home and emergency housing; transitional housing and community of care; and safe space. Figure 3 illustrates this concept.

Figure 3. Housing search with alternate ontology










Providing crosswalks of natural speech is a beginning step in reaching out to LGBTQ youth. The second part of the proposed crosswalk ontology is to suggest references that may help rehabilitate the youth back into society. Much like the bibliotherapy pioneered in the 1930s and tempered in the 1960s, the ontology could suggest information with a positive and hopeful bent. Bibliotherapy is defined as healing through literature (Smith, 1989) by using reading to foster an understanding of self as a form of therapy (Wilson, 1984). LGBTQ youth, arguably, have a great need for self-discovery because they exist counter to the existing social paradigm of normal. Embedding bibliotherapeutic choices in OPAC searches affords a more private manner for discovery without the potential embarrassment of seeking books in a highly advertised gay and lesbian section or in a marginalized corner of the library where the section exists. Seeking books in either location could potentially cause youth the anxiety of public censure. Warner (1989) advised that books used in bibliotherapy should contain characters who face situations similar to those that readers face or characters with whom readers will be able to identify (p. 35); however, Vare and Norton (2004) further the idea by adding the need to provide books that address gay and lesbian needs directly (p. 191). For example, LGBTQ youths who desire to refer to themselves as resilient rather than at risk would have the resilient search as the at risk category, and the search would return positive books about heros who triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds such as David Copperfield, Percy Jackson, Robinson Crusoe, etc. The carefully chosen selections act as silent advocates for LGBTQ youth by aiding in their self-discovery and rehabilitation back into society.


The plight of homeless LGBTQ youth is a complicated issue that affects the library, as the library is used as a gathering place by this and many other marginalized groups. LGBTQ youth are recognized by the LAMBDA initiative as a marginalized group that has been alienated and underserved by the library system. The program opens the libraries to the marginalized parts of society through the education of librarians and library workers. A crosswalk empathetic ontology can work well with this initiative; empathetic ontologies constructed from collected natural vocabulary from the LGBTQ youth are a way to facilitate a welcoming and friendly environment to those who may rarely feel as if they encounter kindness from society. The creation of crosswalks and rerouting information is a simple way to let LGBTQ youth connect to the library and the worlds of knowledge it possesses.


We would like to thank Dr. Julie Winkelstein for allowing us to build from her dissertation for this work.


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