Thursday, 12 July 2012

CILIP in London Meeting: The Women's Library

Last week, I went to a CILIP in London meeting to hear a talk about the Women’s Library, held in The Square wine bar near Euston. The talk was given by Dianne Shepherd, Information Librarian.

I’d heard of the Women’s Library but had never visited or found out any more about it, so I thought the talk would be an interesting experience. The collection has been designated by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council as being of outstanding national and international importance, and documents women's lives through the ages, from education, health and family through to suffrage and the feminist movement. The collection is primarily concerned with Britain, but contains some international material as well.

History of the Library
Dianne began by discussing the history of the Women's Library. It was founded in 1926 as the Library of the London Society for Women's Service, growing out of the women's suffrage movement. Initially it was a subscription library and it's collections came largely from donations. It was renamed the Fawcett Library in 1953 in honour of Millicent Fawcett, leader of the London women's suffrage organisation.

In 1977 the Library moved to City Polytechnic, now part of London Metropolitan University. It moved into a new purpose-built building in 2002 thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, giving it a visibility and a distinctive brand that it previously lacked.

The nature of the collection
Dianne explained that the collection was varied and consisted of a number of different types of items: books from as early as the sixteenth century, newspaper cuttings, personal archives from the nineteenth century onwards, and a museum collection of objects from the eighteenth century onwards. More recently, materials have included audiovisual items. The materials are interdisciplinary in nature and can be accessed by anyone – the general public as well as academic researchers.

One of the most intriguing items in the collection, according to a booklet passed around by Dianne during the talk, is woman's suffrage activist Emily Davison's return ticket to the Epsom Derby, which raises the question of whether her death under the King's horse was suicide or a tragic accident. Why buy a return ticket unless you intend to come back?

The importance of professional staffing
Dianne explained that when the new building first opened, five readers in one day seemed like a lot. Now, that would be a quiet day: there were 4161 visits and over 14,000 enquiries during 2011. A professional programme of outreach and development has helped to widen access to the collections, while curated exhibitions display older, more fragile material not generally accessible to readers. The existence of the professionally-staffed Library has allowed a reading room service to be offered to users and enabled more collections to be made accessible. The Library does make use of volunteers, and Dianne acknowledged the valuable contribution that they make: but emphasised that they are not intended to replace professional staff, rather they concentrate on more routine tasks that Library staff do not have the time to undertake.

The Library still relies heavily on donations, but a formal acquisitions policy is in place and team meetings discuss proposed donations and the most appropriate place for them - the library, archive or museum collection.

The Library under threat
A few months ago, London Metropolitan University, currently responsible for the Library, stated that it was seeking a new custodian. This is partly for financial reasons and partly because the Library no longer aligns with the aims of the University. I found this part of Dianne's talk, touching on the bids under way and maintaining morale in the face of the TUPE process, interesting as my workplace is currently going through that same process (although in a far less stressful, for me, context). A decision is due in the autumn and it is hoped that a suitable custodian will be found: after all the work of the past decade it would be such a shame if it was all for nothing.

I found the talk extremely interesting and learnt a lot about a library of which I had known little. I left convinced that the Women's Library is a hugely valuable resource which should be maintained for all users. I hope it succeeds in finding a suitable custodian and I hope to pay it a visit soon. Its predicament raises worrying issues about the priorities of universities in these financially challenging times, and I'm sure this won't be the last collection to come under threat.

On another note, I really enjoyed chatting to people before and after the meeting, and was very impressed with the food! This was the first CILIP in London meeting I'd attended, and I hope to go to another soon.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Visit to Latymer Upper School

Recently I helped to organise a CDG London & SE trip to a school library: Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, west London. Though school librarianship has never appealed to me – mainly because children and teenagers scare me – I thought it would be interesting to find out more about how a school library works.

The library is only a year or two old and occupies a new building in the school. In some ways it reminded me of a public library, particularly a modern refurbished one: it is large and airy, with bookshelves around the walls, an enquiry desk in the centre, and tables – most of which have computers – dotted around the room. In one corner there are some comfortable sofas next to huge windows which let in lots of light. Like most public libraries, it shelves fiction A-Z by author and uses Dewey to classify non-fiction. The school caters for over a thousand pupils aged 11-18, with around 350 in the sixth form, so the library has to meet the needs of a variety of students. The library is staffed by two professional librarians and two library assistants. Students aren’t allowed to take their bags into the library with them, but have to leave them on specially designed shelves.

The library plays a key role in the life of the school. It is used before and after school (it is open from 8 to 6) by the students for study and reading, and during the school day primarily by sixth-formers who have free periods. Break and lunch times are exceptionally busy. The library is just one of the spaces available to students - others include the group study room and common room - the library offers a quieter, more studious atmosphere and silence is enforced, unlike in other common areas. English lessons are timetabled to take place in the library every fortnight and students are able to choose a book they are interested in and read quietly on the sofas (which are very comfortable!). Teachers are encouraged to get involved with the library, for example by checking the collection of books on their subject. The library catalogue, Oliver, has a clever feature which allows staff to provide subject reading lists which students can use.

Some enthusiastic teachers have provided lists of recommended fiction: there was also a Carnegie shadowing scheme which took place in the run up to the award, with participants reading and discussing nominated books.

The day ended with tea and biscuits kindly provided by staff, and gave us a chance to look over some of the books taken off the shelves during weeding. A few of these have been kept behind the desk, purely for their amusement value. I particularly liked the early 90s volume about the dangers of heroin abuse!

I found the visit really interesting and enjoyed learning about the different services offered by the library. It really brought home to me how valuable a library with committed, qualified staff is to a school and it makes me sad that a service like this isn’t open to all young people. School libraries are not statutory but they clearly provide such a huge benefit.