It began on two shelves in a University College office: a small collection of books to act as a resource for a course professor James Miller was teaching on gay and lesbian history, culture and politics.
Miller, now a professor emeritus after retiring from the department of languages and cultures this summer, hung up a piece of paper in September 1990 bearing a photo of French philosopher Michel Foucault, declaring the racks of books “The Foucault Memorial Library.”
He didn’t know it then, but he was founding Western’s Pride Library – long before it bore that name.
Now housed in Weldon Library, it is teeming with valuable historical collections, artwork, archival material and a catalogue numbering more than 15,000 materials in 18 languages.
“It would have been inconceivable to me in the deepest, darkest closet-y years of my undergraduate degree,” Miller said.
“It would have meant a lot to me, to know there were others like me.” – James Miller, director of the Pride Library
He said he sees hints of the invaluable role the library has played in the lives of those who visit.
“I sit in my emeritus office and watch people coming in and out, and every so often, I get a clue of what this space has meant to people. Once I was reshelving a book and out popped a letter from a student who had borrowed it and written a letter of thanks.”
The unique space – the only known Pride Library attached to a university in Canada – has stood the test of time, marking 25 years since it was granted official status as a research facility at Western. A reopening and anniversary party on Oct. 19 marks the library’s next chapter.
Books, archives and other materials, as well as cash donations, have come from around the world, especially once the library gained research status, with another swell of contributions after its collection was added to the wider Western Libraries online catalogue.
The library is home to the Hudler Archives, a personal collection of London queer history carefully kept by Richard Hudler, a president of the former Homophile Association of London Ontario (known as HALO), the precursor to today’s Pride London organization.
It has its own artwork, with iconic photographs, oil paintings of historical figures, even a personal piece crafted by a volunteer adorning the walls. TV star Irshad Manji even donated a six-foot “Q” from her show, The Q Files, which became a window into Miller’s office. There, he has affixed postcards of notable 2SLGBTQIA+ historical figures in a grid of frames on the wall.
There are novels, reference materials, a section for graphic novels, zines, comics and cartoons, as well as a collection of rare and valuable books for limited editions, signed copies and other specialty items. One prominent London family even donated a closeted relative’s collection of gay trade paperbacks found after their death.
“My eyeballs almost fell out,” Miller said of receiving the donation, noting “underbrush literature” from decades past is of scholarly interest today.
The books are kept in a row of purple cabinets, with some of the brightest book covers blown up and framed on the wall above. The collection is worth an estimated $40,000, Miller said.
With no operating budget, the Pride Library counts on its loyal donors for contributions.
Even through the COVID-19 pandemic when the Pride Library was forced to close, regular donors kept giving, building up a total of $11,000 that helped cover the cost of a few upgrades upon reopening.
That day has finally come, after years of pandemic delays and a necessary closure while renovations were completed at Weldon followed by the Spencer Reading Room. The Oct. 19 gathering celebrated the milestone and return to normalcy, while coinciding with a new Fall Pride celebration at Western, including a parade through campus.
“Libraries have a life of their own. I have overseen the development of the library, but the energy has really come from all the donors. As soon as a space was filled, amazingly, a larger space would always be offered,” Miller said.
Miller recalled the Pride Library’s move from University College to Weldon in 2006, after Western’s then-chief librarian Joyce Garnett offered the space off the Spencer Reading Room on the main floor.
“It was like being offered prime real estate in downtown Manhattan,” he said.
“I thought if we ever got a dedicated space it would be in some far-off location. My jaw hit the ground when I saw it.”
The Pride Library is its own entity, not owned or run by the wider Western Libraries system. But the new location allowed for easy access and the ability to have all the materials listed in Western’s online catalogue. That brought more visibility and encouraged additional donations.
Ahead of the re-opening this week, new display cases were added outside the library’s pod and lounge area and rainbow-coloured film added to the glass through which its sign can be seen from the main lobby of Weldon.
In its early days, the Pride Library sign was nothing more than a string of purple foam letters.
“It symbolizes, to me, the unwavering commitment of Western Libraries,” Miller said of the upgrade.
The new sign is solid, permanent.
The Pride Library’s shelves have also been reorganized to make way for new material. There are 100 boxes worth of donations that stacked up throughout its temporary closure.
“It may seem small, but it’s an important change. We can now start cataloguing again,” Miller said.
“We’re making room for all the books to come in the next 25 years.”