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history, libraries, London, social history, women

Save the Women’s Library!

Today, campaigners have been protesting the closure of the Women’s Library in Holloway, north London. When I heard the library might be closing, my first response was: “Noooooooooooo!” I was actually suspicious (and disheartened) that its end may have been nigh when they closed the Wash Houses Cafe on the first floor, a few years ago, robbing me of tea breaks between working. An omen of lessening funding, I had thought? Many days throughout my career have I worked in the library, surrounded comfortingly by feminist literature. The thought of the library not being there anymore seems wrong and needless. Even though sitting in it and studying/researching/writing, are obvious uses of it, there are deeper reasons why it must stay open.

Let me give you some context. The Women’s Library houses the most extensive collection of women’s history in Europe. It is also the second oldest women’s library in the world after Barcelona’s Biblioteca Francesca Bonnemaison, according to Jennifer Allsop in her detailed piece about the library on Opendemocracy.net.

Why not just house the Women’s Library material in a bigger collection (which is what might happen if current bidder, the London School of Economics snaps it up), you may ask?

As it stands, the Women’s Library is a unique collection focusing on historical records, collections, artefacts etc, especially relating to women. It holds literally thousands of unique manuscripts and unpublished archives – fantastic resources for research on social history, sexuality, law, politics, and international relations from the 1850s, up to the present day. Arguably, a larger collection housing the material might not provide the specialist staff or system, to really honour a consistent and focused approach to women’s history.

Let’s be honest…most other institutes and history itself is still overwhelming patriarchal and male-dominated. We need places like the Women’s Library to hold a space for collections and artefacts that document the roles that all sorts of women played in history, not just those living in the shadow of influential men. When this area is filled out more richly and adeptly, it can be integrated into the mainstream more successfully and quickly than larger institutions struggling to update their own record systems. As some of you may know, I am researching the life of Indian queen, Jind Kaur, and when I went to the British Library, a search of her name yielded few results in the computerised archives. The librarian told me women were generally “very badly represented” in the catalogue. The only way to find out more is to wade through reams of material.

What is more, at an event at the Women’s Library last year, female historians talked about bad cataloguing as impediments to their research into the lives of women in history. While this imbalance cannot be resolved quickly, it needs consistent investment. Surely, all historians want to give future generations, the best and most complete records of history possible? History as it exists now might hold great authority but  there are still hidden histories out there that would change our perspective of the past and therefore, the future. The Women’s Library is redressing that imbalance already. So let’s make sure it does not shut down!  Sign the petition here now!

The Women’s Library building in Whitechapel, London in 2001


About Herpreet Kaur Grewal

Herpreet Kaur Grewal is a newspaper-trained journalist, editor and commentator. She formerly wrote and edited a section for the social policy and politics magazine Regeneration & Renewal. She has worked for The Times of London and her articles have featured in The Guardian, The Observer and The Daily Express. She specialises in social deprivation issues, gender, human rights , arts and culture.


One thought on “Save the Women’s Library!

  1. How sad if it goes. I have memories of working in the library when it was still called the Fawcett Library, in honour of Millicent Fawcett. As ou say, the cataloging of women is often unsatisfactory elsewhere – but also, the librarians in Fawcett were so incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. If it is absorbed into a larger collection, I will be very sad.

    Posted by learnearnandreturn | September 13, 2012, 22:56

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Herpreet Kaur Grewal is an editor and journalist currently based in London.

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