By Laura Schwartz

In March 2012 London Metropolitan University announced its plans to divest custodianship of The Women’s Library, inviting bids from other institutions and threatening to ‘mothball’ the collections (reduce opening hours to one day a week) if a new custodian could not be found. In September the London School of Economics (LSE), the only remaining bidder, took over the collections which it will remove to its own library in central London. This move has been hailed as a ‘save’ by the press (possibly under the influence of LSE’s powerful PR machine) but has also drawn a sigh of relief from some academics who feared that The Women’s Library might close altogether.

Yet The Women’s Library, as we know it, is no more. The purpose-built, Heritage Lottery Funded building in London’s East End will close from May 2013. The future of the building is now uncertain. London Met will have to pay back £4.2 million to the Heritage Lottery Fund and the architect Claire Wright, who specially designed the building to house the collections in 2002, has recently voiced her concern that it could be demolished.

Over 12,000 people signed a petition demanding that the staff, collections and building be kept together. I have been involved in the Save The Women’s Library campaign which grew out of this, made up of The Women’s Library staff, readers, students, local residents, academics and feminists. This campaign continues to make the argument for keeping the Library in its present home. Issues of access are of particular concern. The removal of the collections to LSE will mean an end to a decade of community and outreach work in the local area. LSE will keep the collections open to the public but the difference between a formal and a real commitment to access is significant. At the moment, The Women’s Library is rooted in the multi-cultural and largely working-class neighbourhood of Whitechapel and Aldgate East. Anyone can, and does, wander in off the street to use the reading room where established academics sit alongside teenagers exploring the collection for the first time. This is much less likely to happen when the collections are housed on the fourth floor of LSE’s academic library.

The fate of The Women’s Library could be viewed as a ‘canary down the mine’ for what is going on in higher education and archives more generally. Having already slashed its humanities degrees, London Met management claimed that The Women’s Library was not used frequently enough by their students to justify the expense of keeping it open. Many students and academics, however, protested at what they believed to be the eradication of a research culture at one of Britain’s most ethnically diverse widening-participation universities.

The process by which London Met divested custodianship also merits the attention of those of us concerned with the future of our heritage. No public consultation process ever took place, nor were the expert staff represented on the selection committee. Paul Bowler, Deputy Chief Executive of London Met, promised on several occasions that the university would gladly ‘hand over the keys’ of the building to the first legitimate bidder who came along. As it turned out, London Met quickly went from talking about the ‘transfer’ of the building to asking for a prohibitively high rent –putting off institutions who had formally expressed an interest in keeping the building, collections and staff together. The Women’s Library’s staff, many of whom have been with the library since its inception, and all of whom know its collections intimately, also face an uncertain future. Under TUPE legislation they have to be transferred to LSE but this provides no guarantees to what will happen after the date of transfer.

Campaigning to ‘Save The Women’s Library’ has not been easy, in spite of the huge amount of support we have received. It soon became apparent that the collections were not safe at London Met given the university’s unstable financial situation. Preventing the dispersal of the collections is an achievement, as is the fact that the staff will not have to move cities simply to hang on to their jobs. Yet their removal to an elite institution nevertheless represents a significant defeat for those of us who care about public access and widening participation. Keeping the collections in their present home, even under the custodianship of LSE, would do a great deal to mitigate the worst effects of this. We hope that LSE will hear the case for keeping the building open and explore all available options for how this might be achieved.

Related article: Archives: A House on Fire? by Anne Summers

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