London Women’s Library in danger

This video from Britain is called Royal Holloway Feminism Society – Save the Women’s Library Campaign.

By Louise Raw in England:

Women’s heritage at risk

Wednesday 20 June 2012

It won’t come as a surprise to Morning Star readers that Britain’s only library dedicated to the history of women is under threat.

The coalition’s cuts are reducing access to all forms of education and knowledge, from universities to libraries, for the less affluent.

Only last month we were treated to the unedifying spectacle of a dawn raid on Kensal Rise library ordered by Brent Council, in which it was stripped of its books to scupper resistance to selling it off. Police even removed the wall-plaque commemorating Mark Twain, who donated the library to the public over 100 years ago, in the middle of the night as if to erase all evidence of the building’s purpose.

Now the spotlight is on the Women’s Library in Castle Street, east London. In March London Metropolitan University announced plans to “unload” its special collections, which include the Women’s Library and the TUC archives as a cost-cutting measure.

The archives got a temporary reprieve thanks to the efforts of the TUC itself. But the Women’s Library must find a new home – a big ask in straitened economic times – or it will be reduced to opening just one day a week. In the longer term it seems probable that the university wants to get its hands on its very valuable building.

London Met Uni’s vice-chancellor Malcolm Gillies has form when it comes to shutting things down. He recently declared war on college bars, proposing “alcohol-free zones” on the grounds that alcohol was offensive to Muslim students.

This came as something of a surprise to said students, who had raised no complaint nor been consulted on the subject and who felt themselves quite capable of avoiding cheap lager in the student’s union if they felt like it.

Gillies hasn’t yet suggested that the Women’s Library must go because its sheer concentration of feminist literature is upsetting for passers-by, but maybe it’s just a matter of time.

The library’s collections do show just what can happen when the ladies get uppity – they trace the history of the British suffrage campaign from John Stuart Mill‘s 1866 letter to Parliament calling for votes for women to a congratulatory letter from the prime minister to Millicent Fawcett when women finally got the vote six decades later.

In 2011 the unique nature of the collection was acknowledged when the library was included in Unesco’s Memory of the World Register.

It was established in 1926 as the Library of the London Society for Women’s Service headed by Fawcett, beginning with a mere three shelves.

Librarian Vera Douie was appointed in 1926 and developed the collections beyond all recognition over the next 40 years.

The library aimed not just to commemorate and preserve the history of the suffrage movement, but to provide up-to-date information on the status of women, particularly in terms of their employment.

Members included working women as well as writers and intellectuals from Virginia Woolf to Rose Macaulay. Both women attended its events and donated materials and funds.

It holds first editions not only of Woolf but of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters and George Eliot.

The library moved to its current purpose-built space in Castle Street 10 years ago. It has a reading room, an exhibition hall, teaching spaces and specialist collection storage spaces thanks to support from many donors and £4.2 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Testimonials from visitors show it is as relevant and inspiring in its current incarnation as it was in the 1920s.

Fahmida, a year 11 pupil in Tower Hamlets, attests that the library “inspired me to hold the dreams that I hold today.”

Tributes on its website speak movingly of the value of the resource to children, academics and members of the public alike.

That won’t stop it being shut down. The right has always been suspicious of libraries.

“People have too much knowledge already. The more education people get the more difficult they are to manage,” a Tory MP said back in 1849 while arguing against the first Public Libraries Bill.

The Bill passed thanks to a hard-fought campaign led by former bricklayer Edward Edwards, who had educated himself at the Mechanics Institute Library.

But there was vehement opposition from the Tory benches, who forced major amendments limiting the scope of the 1850 Act. Many were outraged at the idea that they could be forced to fund services for the working classes.

Plus ca change. We are once again governed by men who can visit the library without leaving the house – even if it does mean a lengthy walk from one wing to another. For the butler, anyway.

If we want to keep our libraries we have to fight for them. An online petition to save the Women’s Library has already attracted over 11,000 signatures. The University Students Union has launched an email campaign aimed at Malcolm Gillies.

Please sign the petition and help the library to continue honouring the lives, experiences and contributions of centuries of women.

Louise Raw is the author of Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and Their Place in History (Continuum Press).

Add your name to the petition at

6 thoughts on “London Women’s Library in danger

  1. Pingback: Olympics, William Blake, suffragettes, punk, Bahrain | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. The Long March to Equality

    This exhibition celebrates the tenth anniversary of the Women’s Library being at its purpose-built London home.

    It explores the history of women’s struggle for equality going back five centuries. It runs from the first texts questioning a sexist society to the fight for equality today.

    It shows the vast change in women’s lives that has been won through struggle. And it raises questions about how entrenched sexism still is in today’s society.

    The Long March to Equality: Treasures of The Women’s Library opens on 17 October at the Women’s Library in east London. It could be the last exhibition there before university bosses force the women’s library to move.


  3. Pingback: Manchester, England women’s history | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  4. Pingback: British labour history | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  5. Pingback: London feminist library threatened | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  6. Pingback: Nazi London bookshop attackers scot-free | Dear Kitty. Some blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.