October 1, 2012
Europe’s oldest women’s history collection saved
by Nick Davies
The Women’s Library, reports the Guardian’s Caroline Davies, has just been saved from closing by the London School of Economics and Political Science. Suffragist Millicent Fawcett founded the collection in 1926, and since then it has expanded to become “Europe’s leading source of documents relating to every aspect of women’s lives, including women’s rights, suffrage, sexuality, health, education, employment, reproductive rights, the family and the home.”
The library has been part of the London Metropolitan University since 1977, and was recently faced with the possibility of closure, as the school announced that it would no longer be able to maintain it. But while the LSE’s successful bid for custodianship of the collection has saved it from disappearing entirely, the move is not without controversy. One on hand, LSE director Craig Calhoun points out, “There are numerous synergies between the Women’s Library collection and LSE’s existing holdings. Combined, they will undoubtedly make one of the best international collections for the support of research on women’s lives and gender issues.” This includes the papers of Baroness Seear, a onetime chair of the Fawcett Society, brought together for the first time.
But the Women’s Library has been housed in a building in east London built specifically for the its purpose since 2002, with a reception space, lecture theater, and environment-monitored vaults for its special collections; it will have to move out of that space when it moves to the LSE next year. Max Watson, a union representative for London Metropolitan, expressed his mixed feelings about the change:
We have been campaigning for three elements: the staff, the collection and the building to be kept together. While two out of three ain’t bad, we are very disappointed the LSE elected to take the collection out of its purpose-built current home. And we are seeking urgent talks with them. The current building is beautiful, designed by award-winning architects and built with the original facade of the East End washhouses. The East End has historical links to some aspects of the suffrage movement, and was where Sylvia Pankhurst was based. Women deserve a library of their own, and the fourth floor of an already existing library doesn’t do it justice.
Activists have been protesting the sale and campaigning for the Women’s Library to remain in its purpose-designed building; otherwise it will make the move to the LSE in 2013.
Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.