There are serried ranks of packed wooden bookshelves on a lurid green municipal carpet, the usual quiet study tables. But then you notice the park bench, clad in a hand-knitted blanket. The shelf marked “book returns” that actually holds jars of coffee and tea.
There’s a fire grate that a little label explains was painted by suffragettes in jail at Glasgow’s Duke Street prison and the walls bedecked in artwork by some of the city’s most important artists including Claire Barclay and Kate Davis.
This is the current, temporary, home of Glasgow Women’s Library, a library like no other. It is now a recognised museum, which holds a nationally important and diverse archive from suffragette material, lesbian journals and early feminist posters to knitting patterns.
“It’s very idiosyncratic,” says Adele Patrick, one of the library’s founders and currently Creative Development Manager. “It reflects the interests of literally thousands of women because everything you see in the library has been donated.”
Yet, while it plays host to international scholars looking for rare journals, the library also remains the heart of a broad community; from women taking the first steps in adult literacy classes or learning English for the first time, to some of Scotland’s most important artists and writers.
This is a place of which the crime writer Denise Mina says: “I owe them everything.” She was struggling with a draft of her first novel when she attended a writing class at the library. It became Garnethill and she became one of the country’s top crime writers.
Broadcaster and novelist Muriel Gray recalls the library’s home in the Trongate: “They always had a log burning stove and scones, and, frankly, what other library can compete with that?”
This year the library celebrates its 20th birthday with a project called 21 Revolutions, which will see an exhibition of limited edition artworks, from artists including Turner Prize nominees Karla Black and Lucy Skaer, on show at Glasgow’s Intermedia Gallery and for sale through the library’s website.
There will be also be 21 new pieces of writing, including short stories commissioned from luminaries such as AL Kennedy, which will be available in public readings and podcasts. The first, by Kirsty Logan, will be downloadable on 21 September.
All these new works draw from the library’s own archive, from Gray’s response to post-war marriage guidance to a new print by Kate Davis inspired by photographer Jo Spence. Ruth Barker has made a beautiful screen print scarf, its image of open arms reflecting the welcome she has felt in the library, Chiara Phillips’ print, enjoins viewers to “Give a damn.”
“We’re very good at marking other women’s milestones,” says Patrick. “Collecting and preserving and celebrating. We’ve not been so good at reflecting our own achievements. In 20 years, we have a history of working with artists and writers and filmmakers. It seems natural to invite them to work with us on our anniversary.”
Indeed the library was founded by artists and writers; Patrick was a young lecturer at Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s when artist Sam Ainsley asked her to attend a meeting of woman cultural activists. The group became Woman in Profile and they germinated the idea of the Women’s Library. Figures like Ainsley, Claire Barclay, Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay have all been associated with its rich history.
The library grew organically. “We were probably blessed by not having a librarian for the first ten years of our life,” says Patrick. But, on a voluntary shoestring and in sometimes damp premises, it also highlighted the desperate need for a proper archive of women’s cultural achievements.
Just how wide these are becomes apparent when I meet archivist Lindsey Short. She’s filling out the documentation of a new acquisition, not a manuscript but a scratched and stickered helmet from the exciting new sport of Women’s Roller Derby. A London player donated it when it had been declared unsafe for match use.
The connection with the high-octane sport is through artist Ellie Harrison, who recently set up a National Museum of Roller Derby at the library. “I had not stepped inside the library until I’d been invited to work there,” says Harrison. “And as soon as I started I recognised its importance. I wanted to reach out to the brilliant younger women I knew, reflect the politics and energy of younger women. Roller Derby started with a single league in London in 2006 and now there are 90 throughout the UK.”
Early next year the library will open a new permanent home at the former Bridgeton Library, where visitors will have complete access to the collection, with what Patrick proudly calls “a gorgeous, proper, climate-controlled archive”.
From a passionate voluntary project, the library has grown to have 15 employees and will now move toward becoming a recognised national collection. All the proceeds from 21 Revolutions will help the library as it develops.
“It makes me feel proud,” says Adele Patrick, looking back on the last 20 years. “There have been times of desperation – what has felt not like a glass ceiling but a brick or concrete ceiling. But I feel so proud on behalf of the thousands of women who have contributed to the library’s collection and life.” «
21 Revolutions: Two Decades Of Changing Minds at Glasgow Women’s Library is at Intermedia Gallery, CCA, Glasgow from 22 September to 13 October. www.womenslibrary.org.uk
The crime writer finished her award-winning first novel Garnethill after a course at the library.
“I went on a crime-writing course at the library years ago, when they were in the Trongate, and that’s why I became a crime writer. I had written 80 pages of Garnethill and I was stuck for a year. The course was taught by [American crime writer] Mary Wings. I finished the book and I owe it all to them. The library creates a community. Women can feel silly on their own, they can feel isolated. It makes the kind of grassroots politics that matter to them ennobled and dignified.”
The novelist has given many readings at the library. “It’s great, it’s supportive, relaxing: a nice place to be. It’s very important that though women will take a risk there are a percentage of women who want to be with other women; who feel safe that way. It gives you a bit of a lift, if you’ve got a family or kids, it gives you the room of your own.”
The artist, who has represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale, was part of Women in Profile, the organisation that helped found GWL. “In the Eighties it was really important, because there was a sense that women’s voices were not being heard. It was a support for young women artists… These days, for me, its about reconnecting with the library. The archives are incredible, but for me it’s not just a conventional library resource, but a place of connection with other artists and writers.”
The writer and broadcaster (above right, with Sue John) has written an essay inspired by the library’s archive of marriage guidance literature. “GWL has always been an absolute oasis in the city, providing not just literary archive, information and entertainment, but also outreach, inspiration and positive messages for women of all backgrounds.”