Taking Ourselves Seriously: An Update

Earlier this year we reprinted an article by Jalna Hanmer, first published in 1996, about the state of feminist archives in the UK.  The piece included an account of the successful feminist campaign to prevent the break-up of the Fawcett Library collection and the proposed cherry-picking of historically ‘important’ texts by the LSE in 1976.   Despite this important achievement, now nearly 20 years ago, the Fawcett collection has finally been acquired by the LSE.  In this update, Jalna reflects on this outcome, reviews the current state of feminist archives, celebrates the achievements of the Feminist Libraries and Archives Network, and rearticulates the need for feminists to be more proactive in preserving our own history.

Feminist and Women’s Libraries and Archives have some good news to report, but the story is not an entirely happy one, as this article will reveal.

Amongst the most positive developments is the setting up of the UK Feminist Libraries and Archives Network (FLA) in February 2014:  The first task which FLA has embarked on is to locate all the feminist and women’s libraries and archives in the UK. This process is an ongoing project, and faces significant challenges as it relies on individual women, or those groups already involved in FLA, identifying relevant resources. A major reason for these difficulties is that in the move of the Women’s Library from London Metropolitan University to LSE, a valuable resource, Genesis, was deleted. Genesis was a free online resource for women’s history containing a catalogue of archive, library and museum collections across the British Isles and a guide for women’s history researchers.

There were a number of early participants in FLA, including Unfinished Histories, the Women’s Liberation Music Archive, the Nottingham Women’s Centre Library, Archif Menywod Cymru, Glasgow Women’s Library, the Feminist Archive North & South, and the Feminist Library in London. Here is a brief account of each of these archives, with links for further information:

Unfinished Histories, the history of alternative theatre in Britain, 1968-88, through interviews and the collecting of archive material from innovative individuals and companies involved: www.unfinishedhistories.com

Women’s Liberation Music Archive records and celebrates the wealth and diversity of feminist music making in the 1970-80s. It has a substantial web presence and keeps its archive of physical objects in the Feminist Archive South in Bristol: www.womensliberationmusicarchive.co.uk

Nottingham Women’s Centre has a growing feminist and LGBT library from the 1970s onwards with archival material that is both specific to Nottingham and from around the country. The library catalogue can be viewed here: http://cloud.collectorz.com/nws/books

Archif Menywod Cymru / Women’s Archive Wales, founded in 1997 aims to raise the profile of women’s history in Wales. It promotes projects to seek out documents and to record people’s memories for present and future generations. The photographs and documents are deposited in the county archives throughout Wales and the National Library of Wales: www.womensarchivewales.org

Glasgow Women’s Library is a lending and reference library, an archive and accredited museum. It works across Scotland and houses Scottish and UK materials including the Lesbian archive. It is an award winning fully independent enterprising charity with 22 staff working with 100 volunteers each year: www.womenslibrary.org.uk

Feminist Archive North and South, located in Leeds and Bristol universities, houses national and international collections relating to the history of feminism from the late 1960s to the present day. They include documents relating to the many issues and activities of the Women’s Liberation Movement, including oral histories, film, banners and badges. www.feministarchivenorth.org.uk   www.feministarchivesouth.org.uk

The Feminist Library in London, run entirely by volunteers, is a large collection of Women’s Liberation Movement material, mainly dating from the late 1960s onwards. It contains over 7,000 books, including 2,500 works of fiction, poetry and drama, 1500 periodical titles from around the world, archives of feminist individuals and organisations. Our collections of pamphlets and ephemera are now housed at the Bishopsgate Institute: www.feministlibrary.co.uk

In addition to this, there is a growing list of interested groups and individual women in FLA, including two new feminist collections in Liverpool and Sheffield, but a major missing participant is the Women’s Library, a funded national archive on women, which includes the 19th century Fawcett suffrage collection along with more recent collections, currently housed at LSE.

The Women’s Library

In my article, Taking Ourselves Seriously, first published in 1996, and recently republished on the T&S website, I wrote of a historic moment in 1976, when feminists achieved an important victory in preventing the break-up of the Fawcett collection with a view to ‘important’ books being culled for inclusion in the Library at the LSE.

It is with great regret, therefore, that following the recent move of the Women’s Library from London Metropolitan University to the LSE, they have not replied to the invitation to participate in FLA. This is a cause of major concern for the following reasons:

The move from the London Metropolitan University to the LSE was resisted by many women who feared its open access and other resources would be eliminated. LSE has a history of an unsuccessful attempt to acquire the Fawcett suffrage collection dating from 1976[1] which is one part of the background to women’s concerns.

While at the London Metropolitan University, near Aldgate tube, access was easily available. All could walk in without prior notice, look at the extensive exhibitions, go to the café, read part of the collection on open access and request other items in the reading room. All of this changed with the move to LSE. Now one must register for access to the Women’s Library, limited to three months unless you have donated material when it is for one year. Women with children, the under 18s, and other groups who frequented the previous location cannot get in at all. The exhibition area is greatly reduced but accessible without registering, no café, limited material on open display, and other items must be requested in advance. However, once in the Women’s Library, the staff is friendly and helpful.

While this access to material is standard archival practice, the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University promoted open access and continued to add current material from women and groups. At this point the accession policy at LSE is unknown, but a question is whether it is as extensive as before. The Women’s Library, once having registered, is on the 4th floor of the library and there is still no meeting room for events. While LSE could have obtained the purpose-built facilities from London Metropolitan University, this was rejected.

An example of changing access was the official opening event at LSE in March 2014. 300 people were invited and many more were not allowed to attend. There was a demonstration and a leaflet produced which was handed out to invitees, including the keynote speaker, Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first woman president and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. While she referred positively to the leaflet in the opening event, none of the points raised in this leaflet have received a reply.

The achievements of the Feminist Libraries and Archives Network

The FLA network has agreed ambitious aims to work together on a series of goals. These are both internal to the network and directed at a wider audience. The goals include:

  • Improving communications between feminist and women’s libraries and archives as a means to develop and strengthen connections within the network
  • An outcome of improved communication to promote mutual support and the sharing of knowledge and expertise
  • Working together to provide a platform to reach a wider audience and to highlight the importance of feminist and women’s libraries and archives
  • Collective action through establishing a network to ensure continuity

FLA also plans to create and maintain links with other women-friendly archiving projects which chronicle progressive social movements and the wider feminist activist community

The initial activities of FLA included the creation of a directory of feminist and women’s libraries and archives as a resource for FLA and external audiences. A first issue of the Directory with 48 entries was published in October 2014, but awaits funding to be updated and reprinted. We also held regular events for networking and knowledge sharing. FLA meetings are held every four months, mainly at Nottingham Women’s Centre. FLA also held a session on feminist libraries and archives at the 2014 Feminism in London Conference. We intend to grow the planning group with more women and feminists who will share in developing this network. FLA has a website: www.feministlibraryandarchives.wordpress.com and a twitter account: @networkFLA

A matrix to establish the current state of the libraries and archives participating in FLA is being processed. With the exception of Glasgow Women’s Library, participant organisations in FLA are volunteer-led and unfunded with some universities offering support through premises and other aspects. Questions are being asked about financial sustainability, volunteers, staffing, digitisation, the environment for collections and resourcing, the building security, income generating activities, equipment, training programmes and governance. Major questions are how secure now and over time are feminist libraries and archives? What problems do they face? What are their needs? Where are the gaps? How serious are these issues?

There are growing links with other networks in Europe and internationally. From the very beginning interest in FLA was expressed by countries outside Europe, including Japan and Turkey. Atria, formerly IIAV, the oldest women’s library and archive in Europe, is holding an 80th anniversary conference in December 2015 which FLA participants plan to attend and contact is being made with WINE, the Women’s International Network Europe.

While these achievements, including links with international libraries and archives, are heartening, the non-involvement of the Women’s Library in FLA is a major obstacle affecting the coherence and comprehensiveness of women’s archives in the UK.

 The Future – How will Women’s History be Maintained?

 Who cares about women’s past? Those who have studied any history know that there is little about women. It is his story. Why should we think it will be any different in the future? The past offers no examples of serious collecting other than through women’s efforts. If we want women’s history of activities on behalf of women, through groups, organisations and campaigns to improve the position of women individually and in society, it is up to us.

Taking ourselves seriously involves collecting, donating, volunteering, financially supporting and keeping up to date on women’s libraries and archives. They have websites and welcome those who express interest. Nothing is forever and marginal groups, women’s libraries and archives in the voluntary sector, are especially vulnerable. Your interest and help are needed.

FLA is concentrating on setting up the organisational structure and continuing to implement the manifesto. If any reader knows of a library or archive collection that could be approached by FLA or would like more information or would like to be involved in any way, please contact kathy.parker@talktalk.net

[1] See Women’s Report Volume 5 (1) November-December 1976 for the first attempt by LSE to acquire the 19th century Fawcett Collection.