By Angela V. John
It all looked so promising a decade ago. In early 2002 a wonderful new building was opened in Old Castle Street, East London. It was a carefully chosen site. Here had stood (since 1846) the Whitechapel Wash Houses. Now, thanks to a 4.2 million Heritage Lottery Grant and the foresight of London Guildhall University (LGU), these Wash Houses were purchased and converted into The Women’s Library, a unique cultural centre for the study of women’s lives past and present.
Designed by Clare Wright MBE, this five-storey building was awarded Best UK Building (RIBA) and Best UK Public Building Award (Brick Award) in 2002. Tessa Jowell Minister for Culture, Media and Sport spoke at the Library’s opening along with the Library’s first director, Antonia Byatt. Jenni Murray presented an entire ‘Woman’s Hour’ programme live from the Library with a panel of historians (June Purvis, Krista Cowman, Elizabeth Crawford and myself) hotly debating the suffragist versus suffragette issue with a feisty audience and readings from Fiona Shaw. After a chequered history, the future for resources for women’s history looked bright.
That history was an interesting one. The Library dates back to the 1920s when it was housed in Marsham Street, Westminster. The Women’s Service Library was linked to the London Society for Women’s Service (formerly the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage). It was a valuable resource for newly enfranchised women and gained support from figures such as Vera Brittain and Eleanor Rathbone. In the early 1930s it took over the Cavendish Bentinck Library which had supplied, as Viscountess Rhondda explained in her autobiography This Was My World, ‘all the young women in the suffrage movement with the books they could not procure in the ordinary way’. That included the works of Havelock Ellis which Rhondda’s own father could not obtain. Post-war the Library moved to Victoria and then in 1977 to the City of London Polytechnic. It had appropriately been renamed the Fawcett Library and, in what became LGU, it both flourished and suffered.
Its flourishing was aided by the support of the Friends of the Fawcett Library and its immensely knowledgeable librarian in later years, David Doughan. The suffering was caused by the antediluvian conditions as the library was housed in a cramped basement. Flooding did happen, fortunately without too much damage and it helped to hasten the success of 2002.
What had been created was much more than the name suggests. In effect a library, archive and museum now existed, enriching each other and all conveniently rolled into one venue. The first of many exhibitions illustrated this. Entitled ‘Cooks and Campaigners’, it displayed posters (from a collection of over 950 dating from the late 19c and 20c), magazines, letters, photographs, recipes, a tea service and much else. The museum collection includes over 5,000 objects. Printed collections contain over 60,000 books and pamphlets. There are several thousand journals and many magazines and over 500 different archives.
Each year has brought in new treasures. In 2008, for example, the collections of the film director and campaigner Jill Craigie (a keen supporter and Library user) were bequeathed by Michael Foot to the Library. Her ‘papers’ also range widely: 70 boxes of archive material, films and over 1000 books.
Another aspect of the Library’s work has involved oral recordings from the collection of oral history of suffragists by Brian Harrison (powerfully illustrated recently on Archive on 4) to its Leverhulme-funded Women’s Liberation Movement Project which included a series of workshops around Britain.
In February 2007 the Women’s Library collection was recognised as one of only 130 examples of ‘Outstanding national and international importance’ by the UK Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. It is unique in having its entire collection (as opposed to part of it) thus designated. Just last year items from the superb suffrage collection became part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme.
It is people who bring collections of all sorts alive. The Women’s Library has long welcomed visitors from all over the world as well as from its own institution and neighbourhood. Located in the centre of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic community it has reached out to involve local people in its projects. For example, young women of predominantly Bangladeshi origin from Mulberry School for Girls come together at the Women’s Library with elderly local women to work on artistic projects together under the Magic Me banner.
Research students and academics (female and male) spend days, weeks and months in the Reading Room as do popular writers, and those discovering women’s history and the range of contemporary women’s culture for the first time. Conferences are held there, as are day schools and evening lectures, all advertised in Newsletters. Annual lectures have been given by women achievers such as Baroness Amos, Beatrix Campbell and Stella Rimington. Although there have been a few disappointments – such as the closure of the café and of Saturday opening – until now this somewhat deprived area of East London has benefited from the location of this Library.
Another significant event took place in 2002. That summer London Guildhall University and the University of North London UNL) merged to create London Metropolitan University. In 1996 UNL had taken on another Library of interest to HWJ readers: the Trades Union Congress Library. This is a specialist library for the trade union movement and its history can be traced back to 1922. It houses an important rare pamphlet collection (dating from the 1850s to the present) as well as over 5000 periodical titles and newspaper cuttings about people and organisations. Its holdings include the Workers’ Educational Association Library and Archive, the records of the Labour Research Department and the London Trades Council records. It has the rich Gertude Tuckwell Collection. The papers of this President of the National Federation of Women Workers) and social reformer were discussed in an article in History Workshop Journal (5, 1978, pp.155-162) by Jenny Morris.
Yet the future of these two Libraries has now been called into doubt. On 14 March 2012 London Metropolitan University’s Board of Governors announced that in line with the university’s 2010-13 strategic plan they were taking action to improve the university’s situation and would be seeking a new home, custodian or sponsor for the Women’s Library collections. That strategic plan had referred to the university ‘Transforming lives’. Such an announcement certainly promised to do this! A small working group composed of Governors and Senior University Governors reviewed the arrangements for the housing and management of both the Women’s Library and TUC Library and decided that they could no longer afford to continue to maintain either of the collections as they had done in the past.
If, by the end of December 2012, a solution has not been found, the Library will open just one day a week for three years with a further review at the end of that period. Needless to say, this would be disastrous, making it impossible for all but those locally based to work in the Library and jeopardising the careers of staff, quite apart from the preservation and development of collections.
The situation is not the same for the TUC Library as, unlike the Women’s Library, the University does not own it. It remains in the hands of the TUC and is on loan to the University. The University has decided to seek additional funding to support this Library but if this cannot be achieved by July 2012 one year’s notice will be given for the collections to be returned to the TUC and other depositors. Negotiations with the TUC are ongoing.
A small group has been established to work on identifying potential custodians for the Women’s Library to help secure its future. This is perceived by all as being the least disruptive option. Having created such an iconic building which signifies far more than a Library per se and houses world-famous, precious collections, it would be a travesty to remove or disperse those collections at this juncture when so much has been achieved. The Women’s Library has been and remains superb at addressing the past and the present so let’s hope it can now be helped to secure its future.
Here are some ways you can help:
Suggestions for potential custodians (email link)
Sign the petition (it currently has 6,000+ signatures).
Read the Save the Women’s Library blog (London Metropolitan University Unison branch).
Join the Friends of the Women’s Library. The secretary is Maureen Castens or write to:
c/o The Women’s Library
25 Old Castle Street
Aldgate, London E1 7NT.
Visit the current exhibition on All, Work and Low Pay: The Story of Women and Work at the Women’s Library (see address above) and make sure you get to the forthcoming Treasures exhibition in this autumn to get a glimpse of its riches.