The battle over the Feminist Library: history and community vs profit

The Feminist Library in London is threatened with eviction. If forced to move, the next generation of feminists and activists will be left without tangible access to their own history.  

Beulah Maud Devaney
23 March 2016

The Feminist Library is under threat of eviction and, for anyone living outside London, it’s tempting to greet the news with a bemused shrug. Most of the UK’s feminists are not able to access the Feminist Library on a regular basis and, as the internet has made feminist writers far easier to discover, the need for a physical library seems to diminish with each passing year.

Despite my own inability to access the collection I started making regular donations to the Feminist Library in June 2015, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to interrogate my motivation for doing so. I don’t live in London and I will probably never use the Feminist Library again, so why was I so concerned at the idea of the collection being dismantled or moved to a new location?

History repeating

The Feminist Library in London has been based out of a slightly scruffy building on Westminster Bridge Road for over 30 years but the library’s volunteers must now either find an alternative location or fundraise enough to pay Southwark Council’s rent hikes. The news of the impending eviction prompted a flurry of online and offline protest: a fundraising campaign, an online petition with over 15,000 signatures, and 100+ protesters staged a ‘read-in’ outside the council offices. The affection campaigners have for the Feminist Library is obvious, but many fear that their efforts will not be enough to stop history repeating:

“It’s the Women’s Library all over again” says Charlotte, a supporter of the Feminist Library and volunteer with The Library Campaign. “What happened to the Women’s Library was brutal and if we don’t act now the same thing will happen to the Feminist Library. The next generation of feminists will be left without tangible access to their own herstory.”

Campaigning to save the Feminist Library, London. Photo: The Feminist Library

The campaign and “brutality” Charlotte refers to kicked-off in 2012 when The Women’s Library was threatened with eviction. Based in Aldgate East the Women’s Library housed an unique and extensive collection of work by overlooked women writers. London Metropolitan University (LMU), the library’s administrators, claimed that most of the Women’s Library usage came from outside the university and so the collection should be housed off-campus.

The Women’s Library building had been custom built for the collection, funded by a Heritage Lottery Grant of £4.2 million in 2002. Within ten years LMU had begun maneuvering the Women’s Library out of their own building, without offering compensation for the reappropriated grant money. In the face of vocal protest and scrutiny from the press, LMU’s eviction of the Women’s Library was little more than a clumsy land grab under the justification that they would find a better use for the library’s building.

Less than four years after LMU evicted the Women’s Library we can see the same justifications being used to evict the Feminist Library. The LMU claimed that the Women’s Library building was not serving the university’s students. This justification was recently respun by Southwark Council councillor Michael Situ who was quoted in The Guardian saying:

“Whilst we [Southwark Council] recognise and appreciate the fantastic work done by [the Feminist Library], we have a very clear duty to ensure our assets are being managed responsibly and fairly, and that we are being fair to other tenants who are paying open-market rent.” Once again the discussion becomes about fairness as defined by the institutions most likely to profit from these empty buildings.

The Feminist Library, London. Photo: The Feminist Library

The decision to charge the Feminist Library the same rent as commercial businesses flies in the face of recent developments at Southwark Council. On 10th February 2016 the council approved the development of a new Volunteer Sector strategy, with a report which:

“Highlights the need for a thriving VCS (Voluntary and Community Sector) that mobilises community action and makes best use of community resources, skills, knowledge and spaces.” Feminist Library supporters point out that rent hikes will price the Feminist Library out of their currently building: leaving a vacancy most likely to be filled by a commercial, non-voluntary company.

Despite the holes in their argument and a recent decision to extend the eviction deadline until 30th April, Southwark Council appear committed to raising the Feminist Library’s rent. This in turn raises the issue of access. The Women’s Library was eventually offered a new home over by the London School of Economics, although protesters voiced concerns about the public’s ability to access the collection. The issue of “access” keeps popping up, both within the campaign to save the Feminist Library and my own attempts to understand why I care so much about a collection I will probably never use.

Access and community

By occupying a juicy piece of real estate in London in the heart of zone one, the Feminist Library makes a powerful statement about the need to prioritize women’s history over commercial needs. This theory links directly to the concept of access: if we’re going to have a Feminist Library we might as well make it accessible to as many people as possible. When the Women's Library in London was under threat, Jennifer Allsopp noted in her article The Women's Library: a  khôra and a call to arms, "At a time in which the word ‘occupy’ has become synonymous with social movements, The Women’s Library is a crucial reminder that women’s history also needs the chance to occupy its own space.”

Allsopp’s words hold true today. If the only value to the Feminist Library was it’s symbolic use I would not have set up that direct debit. As Charlotte noted: women need to be able to access our own history and that “access” is not just about about women being able to use a library’s physical collection, it’s also about the way we access our own history as a community.

Women have always used non-traditional means to disrupt the status quo. Flimsy pamphlets, hastily photocopied zines, tattered benefits posters and fragmented social media posts are often all that remain of vibrant, groundbreaking campaigns. Kate Eichhorn, Assistant Professor of Culture and Media Studies at The New School for Liberal Arts, noticed feminism’s reliance on non-traditional voices and documents in 2006, when a collection of zines was donated to US university libraries:

“It was quite amazing to me that a zine produced by a fifteen-year-old queer girl in 1994 in a print run of 30 or so copies could find its way, only a decade later, to a rare book library halfway across the continent” Eichhorn explained to Feministing in 2012. “There’s no history of such girls’ voices being remembered or valued, so how were their zines suddenly showing up in rare book libraries and archives?”

Eichhorn went on to write Sometimes You Have To Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century where she documented how feminists have created our own archives, often outside the remit of traditional institutions. In recent years this trend has manifested in the propensity for feminists to use social media to document campaigns, but as Eichhorn writes:

“How we choose to document or not document a movement is something we need to pay attention to. It’s partially about history but more crucially, the archive is a place where we can examine contemporary feminist activism in relation to an entire history of feminist thought and action.”

The Feminist Library was set up to bridge the gap between academic feminist thought and grassroots activism. “The Feminist Library is a place of community” explains Magda, a Feminist Library volunteer. “The library was where I first discovered other feminists, apart from those in books... it is an inviting events space for other, not strictly feminist, community groups.”

The desire to appeal to non-feminists is understandable; women interested in feminism need somewhere to discover more about the movement, without feeling overwhelmed or preached to. For many non-traditional feminists the library now provides that sense of community that they feel is missing in academic circles.

It’s in creating these bridges between different types of feminism that the Feminist Library really excels. As there is so little documentation of feminism’s history these flimsy pieces of ephemera have become vital signposts for women trying to work out what feminism is actually about. The language feminists used to organize, the things they organized around, the artwork they created, the scathing anthems they wrote, all these things are stashed away in attics, slipped into the pages of books, lying forgotten in a desk drawer. They are in the Feminist Library: the only place in the UK dedicated to preserving the history of non-traditional feminism, the history that doesn’t get a special anniversary edition from Penguin or a series of programmes on BBC Radio 4.

By preserving feminism’s alternative, outsider history, the Feminist Library acts as a bridge between feminist generations. The issues of physical access is important - women’s history has earned its spot in the heart of London. The access to our own history, our own community, is vital.

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