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.
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.
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?
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.
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.