Are libraries a feminist issue?

// 10 May 2012

Hipster Librarian.jpg

Are libraries a feminist issue?

This is a question that I have been thinking about in the last few weeks. I am due to do a talk at the Victoria Baths Fanzine Convention in Manchester a week on Saturday, and this is one of the tangents I seem to have gone off on while pondering the wider area of women, fanzines, punk, riot grrrl and feminism. There are a lot of zines and websites about libraries, and they are frequently written by women.

I don’t have any stats to back it up, but its been my experience that the libraries I’ve worked at here in the UK have all been female dominated. Some more blatently so than others, but as a rule I’d say at least 70% female, and in some very small libraries, 99%-100% female. Libraries are classed as being in the public sector by the way, and in the UK we have two women’s libraries, one in London, one in Glasgow. They aren’t related to each other, they just happen to both be called The Women’s Library.

In mid March London Metropolitan University, who are responsible for the Women’s Library in London, announced that they will be seeking a new home, custodian or sponser for the Women’s Library collections. If a new home cannot be found by the end of December 2012, the Library will move to opening hours of one day per week for a period of three years, with a further review at the end of that period.

You can read the full announcement from London Metropolitan University here

and The Guardian have also been covering the story.

I don’t live in London, but I’ve used the Women’s Library for research on many occasions now. I’ve found the staff to be approachable and friendly, and the reading room is accessible both in the physical sense but also in the sense that accessing it doesn’t involve masses of layers of bureaucracy. There doesn’t appear to be a criteria you have to satisfy to access the collection, you don’t have to apply months in advance, and as long as you abide by the reading room rules (which are sensible) then you can use the collection. Without the Women’s Library both the punk women series and the Shocking Pink piece would both have had substantial holes in them.

But don’t just take my word for it, read the save the women’s library blog. There you will find good information about the library, and why the library deserves to be saved.

Libraries are not just places to go when the weathers cold, when you want to borrow a DVD, when you want to apply for a job online, they are also archives. They store things. The Women’s Library in London stores women’s history, and if it goes, so will a lot of that history.

On a similar theme of libraries suddenly looking financially vulnerable, the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, which includes an impressive archive of feminist pamphlets, journals, ephemera and publications within its collections, announced a massive fundraising drive late last year following funding cuts from Salford Council. Salford is a Labour council and, as such, has been especially hard hit by local government spending cuts.

As with the Women’s Library in London, I’ve used the WCML to research women and punk. The two collections are very different in many ways, but there is occasional overlap: Both have the entire run of Spare Rib for example. But if you wanted to research Margaret Ashton, suffragist, pacifist and first female city councillor in Manchester, then the WCML would probably be a key stop on your research journey.

“We are recognised at home and abroad as one of Britain’s most important collections of working class history. We are open for everyone to use without charge. The breadth and depth of the archives, books and artefacts makes the Library a vast and unique collection, capturing the stories and struggles of ordinary people’s efforts to improve their world. Tony Benn has called us ‘one of the greatest educational institutions in Britain’.”

They say on their website, adding:

“Our founders Ruth and Eddie Frow started the Library in their own home, driven by the belief that working people should remember and value their own history. Together they rescued countless items which would have otherwise been lost to the future. In these turbulent times that history has never been more relevant – and the survival of the Library will depend on the generosity of our supporters.”

In the US, there is a wikispace devoted to women in libraries, which describes itself as being somewhere writers can review “books, films and other publications of interest to the feminist library community”

Do we have a feminist library community in the UK? certainly I know feminists who work in libraries and, while I’ll accept that there’s an informal network of librarians and library assistants in the Greater Manchester area who are of a similar mindset, social group, have similar politics and tastes in music, I’m not aware of a specific network of feminist librarians in the vicinity. Modernists, certainly, emos and goths most definitely, and in many ways we are all Warrior Librarians and often a bit Unshelved as well, though – again – both US sites. Some things are universal though…

Picture of a woman sitting on top of a bookcase, entitled ‘Hipster Librarian’, by Super Furry Librarian. Used via a flickr creative commons licence

Comments From You

Rosalind // Posted 11 May 2012 at 12:54 pm

I’d say that libraries are certainly a feminist issue!

Like you I’m not aware of any formal feminist librarian groups but there’s definitely a strong informal contingent of feminist and social activism among us.

If librarians are seen as gatekeepers of information (or rather, with the ease of accessing digital information, more like guides to information) the political / social impact can be huge. Like incidents where librarians have petitioned the right to hold ‘subversive’ books or where they’ve used classification to comment on Tony Blair by putting his autobiography in the fiction or criminal law sections.

Also, women make up a huge proportion of library users. In public libraries as well as specialist ones like The Women’s Library/ies. In the same way that public sector cuts hurt women disproportionately the cuts to library services across the country hurt women disproportionately as both staff and users.

Matt // Posted 11 May 2012 at 10:17 pm

i’m not sure – I manage libraries and many users are famale, but many are male. To my mind it is possibly a class issue more than a gender one. I’d also sugest that this goverment’s

drive to close down libraries would support this. Cartainly most of the users of libraries I manage are social classes c2/d/e, although most staff are female.

SexierThanThou // Posted 12 May 2012 at 1:46 am

What is this “library” you speak of? Or should that be “of which you speak”? Either way, I have neither fondness nor hope for these redundant “tools”. Purrrrrogress beckons!

Cazz Blase // Posted 12 May 2012 at 11:36 pm

Well, I could mount an argument to the contrary but if the original post didn’t convince you then I’ve very little hope of convincing you now. It’s about more than books these days y’know… and that’s IN libraries never mind Google.

Michael Herbert // Posted 13 May 2012 at 8:49 am

The Working Class Movement Library has a wide range of women’s journals and magazines – including the Common Cause, Votes for Women, the Women Worker (later Women Folk) and Labour Woman from the early years of the C20th, whilst from the 1960s-1990s we have Spare Rib, Women’s Voice, Red Rag, Shrew, Socialist Woman, Manchester Women’s Liberation Newsletter, Rock against Sexism, Everywoman, 0161, Shocking Pink and others.We also have many books and pamphlets. We have some gaps in our collection and would welcome donations of items to fill these if anyone has magazines etc sitting in their loft or cellar. We naturally welcome readers and/or researchers.

Cazz Blase // Posted 13 May 2012 at 1:51 pm

Thanks Michael, it really helps to have the list. I hope the fundraising drive is going well.


lipsticksocialist // Posted 13 May 2012 at 2:25 pm

Libraries are only a feminist issue in that girls and women need them! Also one of the stars of the libraries campaign is author,Alan Gibbons, never mind all the men(and women) who are involved in the campaign.

Libraries have always been a class issue,in my experience, working class children need them to ensure that they can not just educate themselves but can have their eyes (sorry the pun!) to all the wonders of the written word!

Here is to campainers for libraries wherever they are! LSX

Lipsticksocialist.wordpress .com

Cazz Blase // Posted 13 May 2012 at 3:02 pm

I think I should perhaps have been clearer in my post: I didn’t actually mean to imply that libraries are ONLY a feminist issue. I asked whether libraries ARE a feminist issue, but I never meant to imply that the issues affecting libraries are only feminist, merely to ask the question as to whether there is a feminist aspect to the debate around libraries.

It is, of course, perfectly natural that some of our readers will think that libraries are a feminist issue, and some of our readers will not think that libraries are a feminist issue. To think that libraries are a feminist issue does not then mean that libraries are only a feminist issue: of course wider issues are at stake.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 14 May 2012 at 9:46 am

One of the important things that both Salford WC Library and the Women’s Library are exhibitions and talks around their collection that explicitly on feminism and on women’s history (as well as aiding the research behind those exhibitions and talks). Their events are often well-attended and so they are a major way that the general public learn about women’s history. And this is a feminist issue, because women’s oppression is often based on a mythical past that we, women, are supposedly escaping and so disrupting the ‘natural’ order of things. So, it disrupts myths like the idea that women’s work is new, or that there were no single mothers in the past etc etc.

For me, attacks on libraries that are specifically aimed at furthering the history of women and the lower-classes are effectively attacks on the rights of those social groups to have a history and thus to be part of society. Without a history, your voice is lost and so goes unheard. This is a deeply political issue and one that was at the heart of the second and even first wave movements; it would be sad to see such gains lost.

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