Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Women's Library, London: "Celebrating and Recording Women's Lives"

I got very lost trying to find the Women's Library, and in the time I spent wandering around I could see that I was in a more impoverished neighbourhood than any other I'd seen in London. When I finally found the the library, it was down a street, just far away enough that I didn't see the sign until I got much closer. The inside of the library changed my initial impression; I thought it might be in a situation similar to the Feminist Library's (I hoped not, but women still get marginalized even today), but instead I found myself in a pretty nice space.Through later research, I found that the library was not always in a great space. The library began as the Library of the London Society for Women's Service, established in 1926, and its first building was a renovated pub. Its first librarian, Vera Douie, managed the library from 1926 to 1967. In 1953, the library was renamed Fawcett Library after Millicent Fawcett, a women's suffragist who led the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (formerly the London National Society for Women's Suffrage, the origin of the library) for 20 years. Like the Feminist Library, the Fawcett Library was in danger of closing in the 1970s, but was rescued by the City of London Polytechnic (London Metropolitian University) in 1977, and is still a part of the university today. Until 2002, the library lived in a basement that was prone to flooding, and received the new building from a grant of £4.2 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The library also changed its name to the Women's Library after the move.

The Women's Library claims to be the number one resource for women's history in the UK, and anyone can come visit the library to see exhibitions or events. Anyone can access the reading room for free as well, but one must join the library in order to do so, bringing ID and pencils only (rules very similar to the other libraries I've visited in the UK, such as the British Library), with other belongings stored in a locker. Readers can access materials printed after 1920 on the shelves, but older published materials and other special collections must fill out a retrieval slip. It is suggested that one look up materials in the catalogue and request them early, since some materials can take days to retrieve.

The collections cover many topics dealing with women (primarily women in Britain), such as suffrage, health, employment, reproductive rights, education, and sexuality. The library does not cover material before the year 1800, and focuses on the nineteenth century to the present. There are over 60,000 books and pamphlets and 3,000 periodical titles, and there is a museum collection of 5,000 objects such as photographs, posters, and badges. They do not weed anything once it is cataloged, but they do not acquire material they cannot properly store and preserve, catalog and provide access to.

The GENESIS catalogue is also a fantastic resource for women's history resources in the British isles and some global sources; it lets people know where in the world they can find the information they need.

One thing I truly love is that the library has a zine collection, and as a person only recently introduced to zines by a feminist friend (I grew up in an incredibly patriarchal atmosphere, long story), I think it is amazing that they have so many titles cataloged there. Print zine-making still occurs worldwide, on every topic imaginable (the Women's Library even recently hosted a zine workshop), but the need for feminist zines has somewhat decreased with the advent of the internet - marginalized people can reach each other incredibly easily now. I think, though, there is still something beautiful and special about the creation and craft of zines, and that amazing messages and information can still be spread through them. I highly recommend checking out zine collections if you ever have a chance.

The library constantly hosts events; their big exhibition when I visited was "Between the Covers - Women Magazines and their Readers," which takes a look into the history of magazine publishing as it related to women, and how it has evolved. They also host performance events, comedy writing workshops and comedy nights, a "women and the archive" panel discussion, creative writing workshops, a children's art day, and women-themed guided walks around London. There is truly an event for every interest, and I am so impressed with the event offerings from libraries in London - I could spend all of my free time going to library events alone!

I talked to one of the library's archivists, Teresa, and asked her about the differences between the Women's Library and the Feminist Library. Essentially, there is a bit of tension, as the Women's Library has funding and the Feminist Library doesn't, and Teresa said the FL has some resources that neither the WL or the British Library has. It's complicated, and I, an American library school student, do not want to attempt to hash it out here, but I came out still feeling that the Feminist Library has to be preserved somehow, even if their collection has to be split up (worst case). If the Women's Library received it, I know they would treat it with the care it deserves, and that makes me feel better. Both have amazing collections and important missions.

For more information, visit:
Photo of the interior from The Women's Library website - photography was not permitted

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