Report from Save the Women’s Library meeting

By Jade Baker

Campaigners hoping to save The Women’s Library held their first public meeting last week. This follows the campaign’s success in garnering support by running an online petition that has attracted 12, 000 signatories.

A packed room of onlookers heard from a range of activists involved in the campaign: Bea Campbell, a Guardian journalist who has been covering the story; Susan Langford, the director of Magic Me, an initiative to get local women involved with the Women’s Library; Gail Cameron, a worker and trade unionist at the Women’s Library and Jade Baker (myself), activist with the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts Women.

The Women’s Library, currently owned by London Metropolitan University and housed in Lottery funded purpose built premises, is set to be cut by management to save money.

The wider context of this cut proved to be quite a dividing line amongst those present. I suggested that this is not only about a detrimental cut to a vital women’s service but about the future of Higher Education too. Cuts like this one will contribute to the government’s vision of a two-tier Higher Education system, in which wealthy ‘Russell Group’ universities will have the best resources by purchasing the assets of poorer universities, such as The Women’s Library.

Gail Cameron revealed this was the case by confirming the list of bidders who were mainly Russell Group Universities:

  • Senate House, University of London,
  • Manchester City Council;
  • London School of Economics & Political Practice, University of London
  • Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University
  • Warwick University
  • York Saint John University
  • University of York

Some speakers from the floor, including academics and Friends of The Women’s Library (seemingly middle class, liberal types), expressed that they didn’t care much about where the library ended up, as long as the collection stayed intact and was built upon to become a ‘national treasure’.

I argued that throughout history the women’s movement has done so much to liberate and increase the living standards of the poorest women, giving the example of the ‘Women Against Pit Closures’ movement during the miners’ strike of 1984/5.  There is a clear link between this history and the working class women studying at London Met, who have made their way into Higher Education despite the odds. It would be a crime if this collection was only available for middle class women to see; at the moment the library is publicly accessible but there are no guarantees that it will remain so in the future.  This unfortunately didn’t seem to strike at the core with some of the audience.  It is a reminder that educating people about our socialist feminist perspective is vitally important.

Plenty of trade unionists (particularly Unison library workers) and students, took the class issue seriously and openly espoused the need for The Women’s Library to stay at London Met. A member of Unison from the LSE, which has shown interest in the collection, said openly that the university is planning to stick it in an inaccessible place, depriving it of its current role as a local activist hub.  There was a general consensus that it would be a great shame to lose the current building for this reason. There were also agreements that staff should be kept on, a demand that could become impossible if an institution outside of London buys the library.

One of the key areas of concern at the launch of ‘Save The Women’s Library Campaign’ was to keep the integrity of the collection.  The chair said that due to pressure from the campaign so far, London Met management had caved in slightly by handing over the Selection Criteria, which has been presented to all interested parties, to the campaign. This has allayed some fears about the integrity of the collection, as it states that it must be kept as a single entity. However, it does not say that buyers must take on the building and staff. The issue of access is also quite vague as it states that buyers must keep the collection public for five years. Who knows what will happen after that?

The overall tone of the meeting was ‘defensive’ rather than ‘offensive’, partly on account of the emphasis from some that the campaign was only a pressure group that could ‘only do so much.’  This is unfortunate.  London Met management planned all this so it would take place over the holidays when no students would be around to bolster the trade unionists’ campaign.  Positively, however, the campaign has suggested that pressure should be applied to London Met management to hold a public consultation process; it is also planning to present its own public consultation to management whether they like it or not.

Finally, a speaker from the Feminist Library broached more radical ideas such as direct action. She also hearteningly rebutted a comment from an earlier speaker that The Women’s Library ended up at London City Polytechnic (London Met’s predecessor) by mistake.  In fact, she claimed that feminists campaigned to have The Women’s Library at London City Poly instead of the LSE (who also wanted to house it) as they thought the class aspect of where the collection was kept was an important one.

There will be an organising meeting soon to discuss going forward.

Help us save the Women’s library by spreading the word. For more information please visit:  www.savethewomenslibrary.blogspot.co.uk

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About womensfightback17

Women’s Fightback is a socialist feminist paper and blog produced by members and supporters of the socialist group Workers' Liberty. Workers’ Liberty is a revolutionary socialist organisation fighting as part of the labour and student movements, and in campaigns, for a socialist alternative to capitalism, based on common ownership and democracy.

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