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Wednesday, 25 April 2012

RHUL FemSoc Testimony: The Women’s Library; A Room of One's Own

By Vicky Iglikowski

When I’m feeling in need of inspiration, I set upon a journey across the District line and through the hustle of Spitalfields market to the serene sanctuary of The Women’s Library. It provides a Room of One’s Own; a space for feminist thought, academic research and a vast array of creative events.

In less than a year’s time the opening hours will be reduced from five days a week to one, unless a sponsor is found. This is an unrelenting attack on women and an area of history finally gaining strength. The previous housing of The Women’s Library has already been precarious. In its preceding guise as The Fawcett Library the contents were contained in a range of dubious places, from a pub converted into a Women’s Services House in the early 20s which suffered bomb damage, to a 25 year duration in a London Metropolitan University basement which periodically suffered flooding.

For such an important record of women’s history this is not good enough. The library encompasses a free museum with rotating exhibitions and an archive; it is the only institution of its type in England. As a resource for the history of half the population, this community service deserves to be fully government funded.

As a previous student I have used the library countless times, for academic work and personal interest, and as an archivist volunteer I have firsthand experience of how dedicated the staff truly are. The library attracts 30,000 people a year; condensing the 410 weekly visitors to a signal day would be an impossible feat, and will categorically deny people access to these records. The lists of books and archival papers are vast; collectively reaching 70,000 items. The private papers of many women who are deemed ‘important’ are stored here, as well as UNESCO supported items, with world heritage status within the suffrage collections. More interesting perhaps are the archives of many unknown women –collections of early LGBT records, disability campaigners, women from every variation of ethnic backgrounds, and every area of the political spectrum. Society minutes reveal the details of not just the leaders of movements but their average members too. The archives provide historical identities for people so often excluded from official historical discourse. The collection of zines epitomises their unorthodox approach to history, documenting women's everyday lives and explorations of self.

Academically this offers a huge resource, and whatever happens to The Women’s Library it will leave a legacy of research, much of which would not have been possible without it. The context of these cuts to services is the wider issues of London Met, having faced mass course closures as a university that is fighting to provide education to students, consisting of a larger BME student body than the entire Russell group. Fighting these closures is about fundamental access to education and its resources. However the importance of this is more than educational and greater than historical justice. The significance in its rectifying of histories patriarchal narrative lies in the present. Having a tangible history is hugely important to a sense of identity and belonging. This is what The Women’s Library has enabled for its female users; a sanctuary, a place to be accepted, and an institution that recognises the importance of women in history, and their importance right now. The library’s increasing community work allows women from economically deprived backgrounds and ethnic minorities to have an ownership over their history.

To first discover the wealth of inspiring women from the past is to be immersed in a world that is rarely acknowledged, of strong passionate women who fought for their rights and the rights of others. This campaign needs to gain momentum, it is about far more than academics; it is about accessing sources of inspiration and our right to explore our identity. It is hard to overestimate the importance of physical spaces to meet and share ideas. It is empowering. The movement for women’s history largely derived from ‘second wave’ feminism. Those fighting for academic recognition were also fighting for front line services, 24 hour childcare, refuge centres and reproductive rights; it is an intrinsically feminist issue.

We must let ourselves be inspired by our forebears to continue the fight.

Please sign the petition that was launched to Save The Women's Library

1 comment:

  1. Great to read this! Hope you don't mind the plug, but as well as signing the petition people can follow @savetwl on Twitter and read to keep up to date with news from UNISON's Save The Women's Library campaign. More ways to help are here:


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