When we heard about Glasgow Women’s Library, we wanted to hear more, and Dr Adele Patrick was perfectly placed to help us out.
Established in 1991, Glasgow Women’s Library grew out of a project originating the previous year, when Glasgow laid down creative foundations all over the place during its 12 months as European City of Culture.
It exists to celebrate women’s lives, histories and achievements through ever-increasing library, archive and museum collections as well as a tip-top timetable of special events. You can see why we wanted to find out more.
Helpfully for us, the library’s Lifelong Learning and Creative Development Manager, Dr Adele Patrick, is a friendly sort who was happy to spend some time answering our questions.
Who founded Glasgow Women’s Library and why?
Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) grew out of an earlier project, Women in Profile. Women in Profile had arisen around the announcement that Glasgow was to be European City of Culture in 1990. I and other women felt that if we didn’t organise events that showcased women’s creative and cultural contributions to Glasgow, this high profile promotion of the city would be genuinely lacking in diversity.
During the women’s multifaceted arts festival we organised in 1990, we welcomed women from women’s art archives and libraries from across Europe to Glasgow. We subsequently visited sister library projects in Germany and the seed was set.
That year really impressed on us that there needed to be a space and place for uncovering and making accessible women’s past contributions to culture and a crucible for nurturing and inspiring contemporary women’s work.
Was there anything like it at the time? Are there similar libraries in other parts of the UK?
We knew about and were collaborating with the former Women Artists Slide Library [now the Women’s Art Library] in London during the 1990 Festival and have come to know and connect with the several other women’s libraries, archives and resources across the UK.
We remain the sole accredited museum dedicated to women’s history in the UK and are the only one of our kind, independent from academic institutions and employing our own specialised staff.
Was it immediately welcomed?
We had some really tough barriers to confront in the infancy and teenage years. The culture in Glasgow could seem pretty pale, male and stale and sometimes hostile to the very idea of a women’s library.
This was a time when you could still find bars where there were no women’s toilets and women had only recently been able to carry on teaching at the Glasgow School of Art and other institutions after marriage.
The city has been undergoing its own revolution coincident with the development of GWL and I like to think that we have had a role to play in expanding the representation of the culture of the city from being one that foregrounded ‘Glasgow Boys’ – the name of the celebrated schools of fine artists of the 19th century and then again in the 1990s – old and new.
What is in the library and what does it aim to do?
In some ways GWL is a misnomer: we work across Scotland and frequently collaborate with projects across the UK; we welcome everyone (we specialise in working with women but men are active as supporters, donors, users and audience members) and we are so much more than a library.
We are a museum, archive, have award-winning learning and events programmes, publish and have enterprise activities. Our collections and learning programmes form the beating heart of GWL. We try to ensure both are used by all.
“We have true bibliophiles making friends with other regular adult users who are literary learners and who have used the library’s support to enable them to read their very first book.”
From those with very little experience or confidence of using even their local library, right through to Turner Prize nominees and published writers, all can be found using the space, the materials and being part of the buzz at GWL.
Our aim is that everyone should feel warmly welcomed and have a great enriching and inspiring experience when they visit. We have seen how using our collections, attending our events or being involved in learning at GWL really can change lives; people experience things they would not find elsewhere.
We have a rich array of award-winning projects and programmes on offer throughout the year, and of course are filled to the brim with amazing materials, from moving suffragette artefacts to stirring second-wave badges, placards, banners and thousands of items that record women’s lives and histories.
The library celebrates its 25th anniversary this year; how does it compare now to when it started?
In our recent exhibition we have tried to frame our development in terms of infancy: everyone was a volunteer for the first seven years and we had very poor conditions for users and our steadily growing collection. It was a period when we were trying to keep the project alive on a shoestring, but with bags of energy and commitment, with some groundbreaking work taking place.
This early period is now starting to be seen as historically significant and very early Women in Profile projects like Castlemilk Womanhouse are seen as groundbreaking feminist art initiatives in Scotland. Infancy was followed by the ‘teenage tantrum’ period when big changes such as the first staff being employed, first publically funded projects starting up and a series of relocations and growth spurts took place.
The last phase, when we are claiming grown-up status, has been a period that is of course still challenging, but culminating in where we are now – in our first permanent, secure and accessible premises, with 20 staff and 100 volunteers, a Recognised Collection of National Significance with ambitious programming and masses of local, national and international visitors.
Who is your audience?
There is no typical library user. We aim for diverse users as part of our robust Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Plan and I am proud to say this really is the case. I know of no other place where so many people from so many backgrounds can and do feel at home.
We really do try to live our values and we love it when we have events like those of last weekend, when we launched the Tall Tales international art exhibition and it attracted fine artists from Europe and local women (our library is in one of the most deprived areas of Europe) – people who would not normally rub shoulders.
We have true bibliophiles making friends with other regular adult users who are literary learners and who have used the library’s support to enable them to read their very first book.
People come for quality art, theatre and events and others to do local or PhD level research. People come to gain volunteering experience and to feel inspired by the life-affirming collections and ambience.
What’s an average week like at the library?
Exciting, unpredictable, pleasurable! There are always joyful moments: from the regular unexpected donations that are delivered to the collection, waves of new visitors (and these can be from anywhere in the world), to the thrill that comes from having several women creatives, whether that is writers, filmmakers or artists, in our midst each week, bringing their own imagination, skills and perspectives to our space.
There are days when the library has a peaceful, welcoming and nurturing ambience, but on other days every space can be equally inviting but thrumming with energy and packed with meetings, performances, training, singing, dancing… Each day has a different flavour.
What have been the highlights of the past 25 years?
There are so many. Each person signalling they have had a library ‘epiphany’ is meaningful and moving, but over recent years there have been some big public milestones, I loved the ambition and the goodwill from working with 42 women creatives including Jackie Kay and AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway and some stellar women artists on the 21 Revolutions programme.
The relaunch with the First Minister was moving; being nominated Enterprising Museum of the Year in 2014 – the first of a rash of accolades – meant a great deal to me; gaining Recognised Collection of National Significance status and of course gaining Heritage Lottery Fund funding for the building renovations and Regular Funding from Creative Scotland in 2014 has made a huge difference.
We have created a new timeline on our website for our anniversary year that gives a quick overview of the wider milestones.
What are the highlights of the 25th anniversary programme?
We are bookending the year with Herland parties. Herland events distil the essence of GWL in memorable evenings, almost like accessible salons where magical things happen. These gatherings always involve live music, great food, lots of dressing up and a carefully curated blend of established and emerging women creatives.
Susan Calman was our first salonnière and hosted a wonderful alternative Burns night last year; and for our first 25th anniversary Herland, writers Zoë Strachan and Louise Welsh were at the helm, for what was a miraculous night of sheer joy. We will be concluding the year with another wonderful night in September 2017, which you can find out about if you sign up for our newsletter.
Each Friday until the end of the year people are sending us Flash Fiction themed on 25 years and we have a bumper edition of our Bold Types women’s writing competition on this theme too. We have been capturing lovely anniversary wishes from some of our supporters, from Muriel Gray to Mary Beard; these are popping onto our website and being shared at anniversary events through the year.
We are also staging three exhibitions during the year highlighting different aspects of our amazing collection. The next, in May 2017, will focus on posters.
What are the jewels in the library’s archive?
We have so many! We have 300,000+ archive items, 3,000+ museum artefacts and 20,000+ library books and the collections are so very varied there really is something for everyone.
We have an umbrella owned by a formidable Scottish suffragette that is very evocative, some brilliant radical feminist materials from the 1970s and a very rare full run of The Ladder, a US lesbian magazine from the 1960s that is truly fascinating. It was used by the New York based artist Sharon Hayes in an exhibition she has recently launched at Glasgow’s prestigious Common Guild gallery.
What would you love to have at the library which you don’t currently have?
The elusive first issue of Spare Rib!
How is the library funded and how can people help it continue to grow?
The library isn’t fully core funded and many key projects are also unfunded, like our fantastic Women Make History group’s Women’s Heritage Walk programme, where volunteers research an area of the city, create guided walks, produce free maps and even audio tours.
We are very lucky to have had project funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Creative Scotland and local and national government for capital projects and for specific programmes, but there are always lots of areas that need support. And of course we have an entire building to run and maintain, which is very costly.
We are always looking for more Friends. Becoming a Friend of GWL for as little as £2 per month really makes a difference. Their support enables us to plug vital gaps and use money in smart ways that restricted project funding can’t cover.
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