Help Save the Women's Library

In March, London Metropolitan University's Board of Governors announced plans to find a new sponsor for The Women's Library. In real terms this threatens the UNESCO-recognized collection, the largest to document women's history in Europe, with all but closure. If new space isn't found for the collection of over 60,000 printed works (not to mention hundreds of discrete archives, ephemera, posters, journals, and objects), opening hours will be reduced to one day a week by December 2012, making it difficult for locals to access the collections, and nearly impossible for anybody else. In historic terms this takes on a greater quality of horror: the library was founded in 1926 from a converted pub in Westminster, that is, we're talking about closing the library women could go two years before Virginia Woolf ever thought to demand A Room of One's Own. 

Funny enough, it was rejection from a library that provoked Woolf to write in the first place: "Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again, I vowed as I descended the steps in anger." Imagine the angry look on her face, unforgiving and ultimately iconic, distilled into the pages of A Room of One's Own. How do we relate to that anger today?

There are several ways: the petition in protest of such an upheaval to the Library has reached over 11,000 signatures already: you can sign it here. If you are a UK resident you can lobby your local MP to take action here. Finally, there is a campaign website that accepts testimonies about the library here . In other words the bad has brought out the good, and praise for the library has poured in from all sides, which has sparked a large-scale consideration of what it means to have a space uniquely dedicated to Women's history: from UNISON to The Guardian, from historians historians to lesbians, and even Private Eye has covered the endangered library...twice. What is the measure of a library's cultural impact? One non-theoretical answer lies in who it incites to action, and it is a credit to the Women's Library that the public outcry has been so strong, the testimonies across Facebook so numerous. Indy Bhullar, Information Librarian at the Women's Library, put it best when I asked the question many others have been answering: what does the library mean to you?

"The Library means a good deal of things to me and perhaps the best way of focusing a response would be within the 3 goals of the Save The Women's Library campaign, thus: The collection which holds so much history and through which so many stories can be revealed, with narratives interweaving and adjoining constantly (many of which are still yet to be uncovered or re-read) but all of which reflect the lives of a plethora of women and organisations and which are still relevant to so many people.  I love that it is still a growing collection and continues to reflect new ideas and perspectives, so we've room on our shelves for boxes of zines as well as suffrage banners or a first edition of Adam Bede. The building which arose like an anti-phoenix (that is out of flood-water rather than fire...) and was purpose-built to house the materials which we have but also enabled the expansion of the Library, enabling us to attract and host other groups, organisations, events and exhibitions and which has given the Library more than just a room of its own; The staff who are all committed to seeing this unique institution flourish through the expertise and knowledge that they've amassed over the years and who have helped develop and operate a world class institution.  They are also to be commended for putting up with my woeful sense of humour."

The cornerstone of the collection is the archives of the Fawcett Society, dating back to 1866. This is the group currently campaigning hardest for women, especially women affected by austerity measures in the UK; this is the group who has made claims based on the latest budget figures that the path to gender equality is moving in reverse. So the irony that closing the Women's Library threatens access to Fawcett's history as far back as the bluestockings can't only be symbolic. 


Nor is the damage done distantly historic: this isn't just Virginia Woolf who's fuming all over again, because this decision disrupts the Library's endeavours to archive the experience of women in the 21st century, including personal blogs, DIY publishing, and zines. The Women's Library is so committed to the idea of the active, living archive, that it documents its new materials as they are catalogued and digitized and keeps up a robust rotation of exhibitions free to the public (the latest is "All Work and Low Pay: The Story of Women and Work"), as well as online exhibitions for events passed. It's this level of energy that makes the thought of slowing the momentum the Library maintains five days a week down to one day a week all the more painful, and the need to act all the more vital.

Keep up with the Campaign to Save the Women's Library through its blog (, or twitter account (!/SaveTWL).

Image sources courtesy of the Women's Library Online Archive, "We Will Have It!" and "Protest and Survive!" Badge