For 1st time, SF public library circulates LGBTQ center books

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday November 21, 2023
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Cristina Mitra, the Hormel Center's program manager, stands in its third floor reading room, where the books on the shelves can now be checked out by library patrons. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko
Cristina Mitra, the Hormel Center's program manager, stands in its third floor reading room, where the books on the shelves can now be checked out by library patrons. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko

When the city debuted the New Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library in 1996, it also christened the opening of the reading room for what was then known as the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center. Yet anyone who wanted to read the books in the third floor space had to do so at the library in the Civic Center near City Hall.

None of the LGBTQ titles in the collection of what is now known as the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center could be checked out and taken home. That is, until now. As of November 8 the nearly 1,000 books on the reading room's shelves are allowed to circulate among the public.

"We are hoping that increases the enjoyment and access of the amazing LGBTQ books we have," said Cristina Mitra, the Hormel Center's program manager.

It is not just library users in San Francisco who can check out a Hormel Center ( book or have it be sent to their neighborhood library for them to pick up. Any user of a California or Nevada public or academic library that is part of the free LINK+ (Link Plus) cooperative exchange system can now borrow one of the center's books.

Adding the Hormel Center to the library network has been in the works for a while, Mitra told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent interview at the city library. But its implementation coincides with a recent burst of activity by conservative groups to have LGBTQ books banned at school and public libraries and removed from the shelves.

In response to the book banning at libraries, the San Francisco library has been posting to its website a list of those titles that have come under attack in other library systems. In doing so, it is also noting it has the books for people to borrow.

"On a personal level it is heartbreaking," Mitra said of the LGBTQ book backlash. "Professionally, it is also appalling because so many book bans are at schools; I was a children's librarian."

In San Diego, during Pride Month in June, two library users had purposefully checked out all of the LGBTQ books at one branch library in the city. They told library officials they would not return them until such "inappropriate content" was no longer allowed on the library shelves.

Mitra told the B.A.R. she hopes a similar borrower blockade won't hit the Hormel Center. She hopes people check out the books for more enlightened reasons.

"I am curious what we will see from that," Mitra said of opening up the book collection for circulation. "If they don't come back, I hope it is because someone loved it so much they can't send it back, not because they are trying to ban it."

When the Hormel Center opened, its non-circulation policy was instituted as a precaution, noted Mitra.

"In 1996, we wanted to safeguard what we had," she said.

Texas Starr, a trans guy who is a video artist and filmmaker, had provided input about the change in the circulation policy as a member of the Hormel Center Advisory Board. He told the B.A.R. he hopes it will have a positive impact going forward.

"I think it is really important we make it as accessible as possible, especially now. I do have concerns as there has been vandalism in the past of the library's queer books," said Starr, whose artist pseudonym is Texas Tomboy Brand Prod. "I just hope it reaches the right people that need to be enlightened or supported or inspired."

Starr was referring to when in 2000 a vandal targeted more than 600 books that were mostly LGBTQ works held in the collections of both the San Francisco Main Library and its Chinatown branch. Among them were 200 books that were part of the Hormel Center, which is named after the country's first openly gay ambassador.

Hormel, who died in 2021, had donated $500,000 to help launch the collection. It has become one of the country's premier archives for the LGBTQ community, which is co-maintained by the library's SF History Center.

"Most city libraries don't have archives. Even more rare is one specifically for the LGBTQ community," said Mitra. "Usually, LGBTQ archives are found at a university or run by a private organization."

The Hormel Center is now home to more than 10,000 books, with more being added each year. However, only those books found in the reading room can be checked out.

"What is in the reading room changes all the time," said Mitra.

As for those titles not on the reading room's shelves, people can read them on site by asking the page desk on the third floor of the Main Library to collect them from the Hormel Center's vault. It is in an underground area not accessible to library users.

"So many titles here are out of print," noted Mitra as she showed off the stacks in the climate controlled room to the B.A.R. "We also have historical pamphlets from the 1960s and 1970s."

One holding she is particularly fond of is the collection of Gay Areas from the early 1980s. The private telephone directories issued annually were billed as "the world's first gay telephone directory."

To Mitra, they are "treasure troves" of the Bay Area's LGBTQ history, with each volume including a map of San Francisco with satirical names for the city's neighborhoods. For example, Pacific Heights is dubbed Terrific Heights.

"It is basically our gay Yellow Pages," she said. "To think this many businesses chose to be listed here. We are assuming they are gay friendly."

Hormel Center program manager Cristina Mitra holds old copies of Gay Areas, known as the first gay phone book. Photo: Matthew S. Bajko  

A homegrown story
Mitra, 43, is a San Francisco native who came of age during the AIDS crisis of the 1990s. She told the B.A.R. that she also "grew up in the closet" despite the city's liberal reputation.

"People say they come to San Francisco because they couldn't be queer where they were born. We are from here but still found it hard to be queer," recalled Mitra of herself and her friends.

She now lives in the Outer Sunset with her wife, Aimee Espiritu, an arts education consultant. A trained public librarian, Mitra spent a decade working in the San Francisco Public Library's programs for youth. For four years she worked at the children's library at the Bayview branch then became a family engagement coordinator on the central youth services team.

Via her role she oversaw the summer reading program for teens and booked performers, from magicians to puppeteers, for events at the branch libraries. In 2012, Mitra and her high school best friend, Natalia M. Vigil, co-founded Still Here San Francisco ( to highlight the voices of LGBTQ Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who were also born in the city.

It also had a particular focus on bringing together youth and elders in the community to learn from each other. One memorable event for Mitra was an intergenerational discussion the organization held focused on AIDS.

"Our parents weren't talking to us about it," said Mitra.

She stepped away from her role with Still Here in 2017. But she credits her experience with it for laying the groundwork for her current position.

"Because of that I could do this work, bringing people together to talk about queer history," Mitra said.

A queer woman of color who took over oversight of the Hormel Center in October 2021, Mitra is the first person of color to hold the job.

"I want to make sure I am reflecting my community. I want them to see me and see us reflected here," she said.

Raising awareness about the Hormel Center, its holdings, and its events is a main priority for Mitra. Even two years after the library reopened to the public following its closure due to the 2020 COVID outbreak, not everyone realizes the center is there for them to utilize.

"It surprises me more people still do not know it is here," said Mitra. "This is their space."

The programming she plans is done purposefully to bring people into the orbit of the Hormel Center, whether it is via author readings in the reading room or larger events in the library's Koret Auditorium. Not equipped to do simulcasts online, Mitra does record the programs and posts the videos online within a week.

"In person attendance we've seen be very robust," Mitra said of the programming she has overseen.

She is also mindful of wanting to have intergenerational programs that draw younger and older LGBTQ attendees together. Another aim is to ensure people of color know preserving and celebrating their culture and history are part of the Hormel Center's mission. Last month, for instance, Mitra co-hosted an event that featured drag performers from the now defunct Mission district nightclub Esta Noche.

"I want to make sure these stories are not lost," said Mitra.

One aspect of her job is talking to people about why their private collections are worthy of being preserved and becoming part of an archive, whether at the Hormel Center or another institution. Of particular interest to the library's LGBTQ archive are people's diaries, photos, letters and even flyers for LGBTQ clubs, especially those materials that relate to communities of color and the transgender community.

"They don't think their things are worthy," Mitra said of the response she most often hears from people.

She is also intentional in how she addresses the subject with individuals, not wanting it to appear she is only doing so in order to bolster the Hormel Center's holdings. Mitra told the B.A.R. it matters less to her where someone's archival materials end up and more that they know how to protect their personal items.

Thus, the Hormel Center will be co-hosting a workshop from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. January 27 specifically for LGBTQ Black individuals who want to learn about archival preservation techniques. (Those interested in attending should RSVP online at as space is limited.)

The event is part of the library's Queer Black Community Archives Project, and attendees will receive an archival starter kit. It is timed to the library's annual Black History Month observance, which it kicks off each year around Martin Luther King Jr. Day in mid-January and runs through the end of February.

"Unfortunately, this is a community that has so often been told your community doesn't matter," said Mitra.

Throughout 2024 Mitra is planning to hold additional workshops for other groups in the LGBTQ community whose history has often been overlooked. The purpose isn't to bolster the Hormel Center's holdings, she stressed, but to assist and bring together community archivists.

"We want to offer basically a skill share. It is not so we can acquire items for us," said Mitra. "You get to decide if you want to hold on to that, that is your freaking right."

Next week's issue of the Bay Area Reporter will have a story about Texas Starr's digital collection of his work he has donated to the Hormel Center.

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