The Women's Library

On Tuesday, November 1st, some of the trainees attended a talk on the history of the Women’s Library, part of an ongoing series of seminars run jointly by the Institute of Historical Research and the Institute of English studies, both part of the School of Advanced Studies in the Senate House.

The talk was given by Dr. Jane Grant of the Centre for Institutional Studies, University of East London, and was held at the library itself, in Aldgate. The library is a fantastic purpose-built space, situated in a former wash house, and served as an excellent location to discuss the unique challenges faced by independent library collections over time and to hear about the tumultuous history of the Women’s Library. Dr. Grant gave an interesting and amusing description of the history of the library, which was initially established in 1926, as the Library of the London Society for Women's Service, the successor of the Society for Women’s Suffrage, later the Fawcett Society, which ran the library until 1977. Today, the library is part of London Metropolitan University. The collection of books, archives and artefacts focuses on the experiences of women and the women’s movement, with particularly strong collections on the British women’s suffrage movement.

We started the evening with a tour by one of the librarians, who explained the nature of the collection and the challenges of selecting and cataloguing material with a small staff, as well as answering any questions the audience had about the collection. She also highlighted the concerns the library has in making sure they don’t ‘step on the toes’ of other libraries in terms of their acquisitions. The catalogue, and different methods for searching their very varied collection, were also explained and demonstrated. We were then able to have a look around, not just at the books on the shelves (though they were enticing enough!), but at some of their vault materials, including the 1902 minutes of the Society for Women’s Service and a collection of 1980s feminist postcards. After this, all moved to the café to listen to Dr. Grant’s talk.

Detailing the evolution of the library from a few shelves of books in a London pub to its current location in Aldgate, Dr. Grant demonstrated some of the difficulties that such a unique and important independent collection can have, particularly in gaining funding and support, and the importance of volunteers in keeping the Library up and running. There was also discussion of the Library’s current status as a branch of London Met, a partner selected because of its willingness to keep the collection intact, and give it a purpose-built home, instead of dispersing it and rejecting duplicates, as some other potential university partners had suggested. Dr Grant also illustrated the struggles faced by the Women’s Library during the Blitz, when its Marsham Street building in Westminster was severely damaged, though thankfully leaving most of the collection itself intact. During the following discussion, a representative from the Feminist Library commented on this transition, speaking about her own library’s difficulties in finding a suitable partner in higher education, especially in the current climate. The discussion then broadened out to the importance of special independent collections, and the vital importance of ensuring that they are used, promoted and preserved.

Altogether, a thought-provoking and fascinating event, giving insight into a previously unconsidered element of libraries. The story of the Women’s Library is an inspiring example of what can be achieved when collective belief in a cause is able to triumph even in seemingly dire circumstances.

Next stop, the Feminist Library!

Hannah (ICS) and Hannah (IHR)

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