A Feminist Library Says Hello To Time

Note: this was written in 2016.

The Glasgow Women’s Library first officially came into the world in 1991 as a two-room offshoot of The Mitchell Library. Today, twenty-five years later, it has a building of its own just off from Glasgow Green that regularly plays host to English-language classes, tea that can be made at a moment’s notice, tentative discussions to tend bees on the roof, and more. A corner of that building has carved black-seeming obsidian that celebrates when women won the right to vote. There is a wall of art facing the building that highlights an Inuit tale celebrating a woman’s strength in the face of overwhelming abuse across the way from the doors. A little further down are signs where the women of different parts of Glasgow express solidarity with each other.

A knee-high sandwich board stands outside the entrance. It’s chalked up. After passing over stone steps, there are the doors, wooden things, which swing open to the main space and the books.

A random selection of the items on the shelves includes Women of China, Cuban Women Now, Moscow Women, Baghdad Sketches, The Suppression Of Domesticity in Modern Art and Architecture, The Golden Notebook, The Female Eunuch, When God Was A Woman, In Favor Of A Sensitive Man, The Spare Rib Reader, and one — Jill Posener’s Spray It Loud — that features a woman leaning suggestively up against the bark of a tree. RENEW HIS INTEREST IN CARPENTRY, reads the caption. Later, a graffiti artist added the pièce de résistance: “SAW HIS HEAD OFF.”

“All the books here are books people have donated,” Adele Patrick, co-founder of the library, told me during a misty blue January. “We’ve never had a budget for books, so it’s a bizarre scenario. Most libraries have a budget, and they have … stock. And they buy books. We have no money for books. We’ve never had a budget for books … It’s quite ad hoc. We got this massive national lesbian archive from London in the mid-90’s. They needed a home for it and we took it. So, suddenly, we had this massive load of lesbian crime writing, lesbian novels … So we don’t have a really strict collections policy.”

Lesbian crime writing and lesbian novels means that you can read — in one instance, in a collection edited by Katherine V. Forrest — of a hard-boiled maternity doctor, drinking, informing the waitress he’d delivered “three [babies] before he got breakfast, including one classic breech. Seven’s the score so far, and another coming on. Sister Gabrielle was parking them in the elevator.”)

Or, if you’d like, you can read through an anthology called Making Space for Indigenous Feminism, think back to the piece The Toast ran on what was missing from the conversation, and wonder when the truth and reconciliation process will finally get under way.

Back in October of 2015, before the BBC published a report on how libraries in the UK have lost 8,000 jobs in six years, before The Feminist Library in London was threatened with eviction and then offered a six month reprieve, I asked Adele — why a woman’s library in Glasgow? “It’s not as if there’s a Mother Jones Library in San Francisco, is there?”

“It’s weird,” Patrick replied. “It’s completely random. It’s completely counterintuitive.”

Its immediate precedent came when Glasgow was named the “European Centre of Culture” in 1990. Women who worked at women’s libraries in Nuremberg, Germany were visiting Glasgow at the time, and — per Patrick — “We were all thinking at the time, ‘Shit. Industrial city. Cultural heritage. Surely, we deserve a woman’s library.’” In the beginning, she said, it was a “really hairy, raw project that was all volunteer for 7 years. It was 10 years before we got a professional librarian in through the door.”

“If you think about the period when we set up the library, it really was in the white heat of Thatcherism, the actual winding down of a lot of our sister/equality groups — winding down of The Greater London Council — and it wasn’t happening in Scotland. We bypassed all that. It was sort of doubly perverse that we started up. We didn’t have government support or council funding at the time.”

There is a clever historical touch in recasting a library as a more second-wave-styled feminist space, given the history of libraries and librarians up to this point: as The New Statesman noted in February of 2015, when Sylvia Pankhurst opened up her shop in 1913, she had “included a lending library [for Suffragettes] so that local women could educate themselves.” A librarian by the name of Dorothy Burnett Porter Wesley discovered the first novel written by an African-American woman. Women’s clubs brought some of the first libraries to the United States, as well as some of the first travelling libraries. (See, for instance, Wyoming.) As Suzanne Hildenbrand notes in an article she wrote for the journal Libraries and Culture, “women librarians reorganized the interior space” of Carnegie Libraries “to defy the gender conventions adhered to by the architects and library boards.”

“Going back to the mid 1930s,” Kate Eichhorn, author of The Archival Turn in Feminism and professor at The New School, told me when reached through e-mail, “there are examples of feminist activists who recognized the importance of libraries and archives. It is clear that early on, feminists realized they would need to build up their own collections and preserve their own histories of struggle. But also bear in mind that like teaching and nursing, librarianship has always been a feminized profession, so it has always been populated by a disproportionate number of radical spinsters.”

And, in 1970, The Feminist Task Force was started in the summer at the American Library Association Conference in Detroit.

“When [The Feminist Task Force] started,” Diedre Conkling said when reached by e-mail, “there was all kinds of overt sexism in both the ALA organization and the associated vendors. This has slowly changed largely because of our efforts,” citing equal pay for equal work, lack of women in administration, IT, and related fields like gaming and software engineering, and gender bias presenters at ALA Conferences. “We know that women in the profession have come a long way,” she continued, “as have women in general, but these gains are frequently eroded in public discourse and in private action … I really don’t think we would do anything different today than we did in 1970 and are still doing today. The world hasn’t changed that much.”

“There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when feminist journals, newspapers, publishing houses and bookstores were thriving,” Eichhorn continued. “Much of this collapsed in the 1990s. This happened for many reasons, but certainly, in places like Scotland and throughout the UK, many of these institutions collapsed as government funding for feminist endeavors of all kinds was cut back or entirely eliminated. But women continued to publish — often self publishing zines [I spoke with one volunteer librarian cataloging zines in the GWL’s collection, showed me one zine the size of a book of matches and asked me in a thick French accent if I thought it was possible to be happy in the 21st century — EF] — throughout this period and collecting these materials became a personal and by the early 2000s, institutional passion and commitment for many feminist activists.”

“Feminist librarians understand how knowledge is produced not only at the moment of its inception but also through its collection and classification over time. This is where feminist activism and librarianship intersect, and I would argue that recent movements, such as the riot grrrl movement in the U.S., have remained visible and accrued status as a result of librarians’ activist interventions.”

While working on this story — and you might have caught wind of this yourself — a pro-rape, 36 year-old pick-up ‘artist’ decided to organize public meetings amongst his supporters across the world. Two meet-ups were scheduled for Glasgow and Edinburgh. As a result, Police Scotland issued a statement. The individual in question took to twitter and complained that he “received more threats from Glasgow than anywhere else combined. Is it some kind of convict resettlement zone?” Those who took to define their city for themselves online said things like, “Glasgow, the city where you see a terrorist ON FIRE & kick him in the nuts.” Glasgow City Council issued a statement saying that the man and his group in question “does not have permission [to meet] and never will.”

The next day, he cancelled the meet-ups, claiming he could ‘no longer guarantee the safety or privacy of the men who want to attend.’ He suggested supporters doxx journalists. He encouraged supporters to come out from behind computer screens while promising to speak from a computer screen.

The pick up artist meet up was scheduled to meet at a location known as the Grassmarket, which is set down from a winding road off the Royal Mile. There was an aftermath of rain and rugby matches in the air. There was speculation as to whether Mary’s Milk Bar would be open or whether or not over-large rugby fans would be on the side of the protestors. Four police officers stood watch over the assembled crowd. The largest banner read: “SMASH RAPE CULTURE.”

Supporters of the pick up ‘artist’ did not show. I’m so disappointed no one came, a young man said, “because I was so ready.”

The crowd that had gathered began to leave — some for the pub, some for elsewhere. Leaving the Grassmarket meant passing a musician busking away in the shadow of a closed church doorway, playing an almost anthemic Cowboy flamenco. It was Saturday night and people were out. On the descending curve of High Street, an inebriated man lifted an inebriated woman onto his shoulders. There was a yelp. He put her down, then extended his arms triumphantly as he stepped out into the road for a moment.

For some, the idea of pursuing ‘the future of the library’ is in pursuing technology, automation, productively ragging on Amazon, or in investing in infrastructure that already exists. For The Glasgow Women’s Library, it seems to be in ‘the collection and classification over time.’

One February afternoon, for instance, I looked down and spotted beneath a glass table an anti-suffragette clock amongst anti-suffragette postcards (a clamp over the mouth of one, a nail driven through the tongue of another) which featured as its centerpiece a man holding two crying babies with the second hand, the minute hand, and the hour hand sitting — at least for this moment — completely still.

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