March 14, 2014

The Women’s Library has an identity crisis


The original purpose-built space for The Women’s Library

The Women’s Library, Europe’s oldest and most extensive collection of women’s history, has undergone a controversial relocation moving from its original site in Whitechapel, in London’s East End, to the London School of Economics in central London.

The Library was initially threatened with complete closure two years ago, when London Metropolitan University announced that it was withdrawing its funding. So the fact that the Save the Women’s Library Campaign was successful (a campaign that resulted in a 12,000 signature-strong petition in support of the library’s continued existence) and LSE has taken on the library’s collection should be cause for celebration, right? Wrong.

Even as late as Tuesday, the day of the re-opening of the library at LSE, campaigners were planning a “peaceful protest” at the opening ceremony, in order to express their concerns that the library would not remain accessible to all. Campaigners lamented the loss of The Women’s Library to its original community, where young and old had enjoyed access to the library since 2002. As well as housing a collection of 60,000 books and 5,000 museum artefacts (including Emily Davison’s return ticket from Epsom from the day she was pulled under the king’s horse and killed) the museum’s original purpose-built home featured a gallery space and ran outreach work which aimed to involve many local women, from school girls to grannies.

Writing in The Independent, the writer and academic Laura Schwartz shared her worries:

“The blow was felt not only by feminist activists but also by the working-class and multi-ethnic neighbourhood where it had made its home. Will such people feel able to access the collections now that they are stored in the LSE’s academic library in central London? Will The Women’s Library continue to be a place where activists can gain inspiration, and friendships can be made? Or will it become simply another dusty archive, sealed off by an increasingly privatised and elitist university system?”

The answer remains to be seen, but the LSE are confident that the collection and its visitors, whoever they are, will feel comfortable in their new home. A spokesperson for the LSE told the Bookseller,”Later in 2014 LSE will open an Exhibition Space and Teaching and Activity Room for the collection, both of which will be used by members of the public.” Schwartz, who has used the library throughout her academic career writes about what the opening of The Women’s Library had symbolized for her and many others:

With its name emblazoned in pink neon letters across the top of the converted Victorian washrooms, The Women’s Library embodied an early 21st-century optimism: women were no longer to be “hidden from history”.

In it’s new central location, the library will certainly not be hidden. But the campaigners are asking an interesting question. Usually we assume that universities, institutions dedicated to learning and to the preservation of historical artifacts, are best placed to house libraries and important book collections. The campaigners argue that the collection was central to a vibrant local community who should continue to benefit from it. It’s a question of where –and to whom– history belongs, and as it’s women’s history that is under discussion, that debate is highly fraught.


Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.