(L-R) Councillor Susan Aitken, Lord Provost Eva Bolander and Sue John / credit: Jeanette Lang, Glasgow Women's Library
Glasgow Women's Library have been quietly going about their business for nearly 30 years. We pay tribute to this year's Hot 100 number one, and say it's high time to shout their achievements from the rooftops
As the only accredited museum dedicated to women's history in the UK, Glasgow Women's Library is more than a library, is not just for women and reaches out far beyond its base in the east end of Glasgow. Sue John, GWL's enterprise development manager, is sensitive to the implied circumscription of the name. 'We have 27 years of goodwill around that name,' says John. 'And also, what would we replace it with, because we want it to be as accessible as possible.'
The conversation about their name is just one example of the appetite for debate, dynamism and progress which has powered Glasgow Women's Library since its foundation in Garnethill in 1991. Since then, this unique organisation has inhabited a number of locations in the city centre and is now firmly ensconced in the beautiful Edwardian premises previously occupied by Bridgeton Public Library. The former Ladies' Reading Room is now the GWL offices and the Gentlemen's Reading Room has turned into a flexible events space where their latest exhibition, First Waves, on the impact of changing UK race relations legislation, has just opened.
'This is an amazing part of the city,' enthuses John. 'We know it's had its challenges, with decades of neglect and industrial decline. Yes we have poverty, low life expectancy and links to sectarianism but what a pride in the history of this area, what a hunger for heritage and cultural offerings. There isn't this invisible barrier that marks us adrift from the community; we are the community, and we want visitors from around the corner and around the world.'
As well as being a welcoming library, café and meeting space, GWL is home to a vast archive of 20,000 books, 3000 artefacts and 400,000 donated items. These date from the early 1800s right up to contemporary collections of materials around the Women's Marches which followed Donald Trump's election and from the Repeal The 8th campaign in Ireland earlier this year. All of which testifies to the personal and political lives of women and how that has impacted families, communities and wider social change over the last two centuries.
courtesy of Glasgow Women's Library
By any measure, 2018 has been a landmark year for women's rights. Across the UK, Vote 100 celebrated the centenary of votes for (some) women. Glasgow Women's Library have marked the occasion by developing two new Suffragette City (nice) heritage walks, and programming a strand of talks, workshops and events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival called Revolting Women. Plus, they collaborated with students at Glasgow School of Art, Edinburgh College of Art and Glasgow College to create a series of 30-second animations on 100 different suffragists, as part of their drive to raise the profile of Scottish suffragettes such as Flora Drummond and Helen Crawford (whose great-grandniece, the New Zealand artist Fiona Jack, exhibited at GWL at the start of the year).
Meanwhile the need to safeguard such hard-won rights was highlighted by the global surge of the #MeToo movement in response to high-profile allegations of sexual abuse by a succession of powerful public figures. 'What a time!' says John. 'It feels like there are two incredibly powerful forces in play here: the rise of the global right, Trump and that unequivocal message from white men particularly in the highest echelons of power that they are sticking together. On the other side, we've got this unprecedented uprising of women's solidarity; and that doesn't go back in the box. I think it's incredibly empowering that those movements have come together through social media or in real life, and it lifts my heart every single day.'
The Glasgow Women's Library had particular cause to celebrate earlier this year when they were nominated for the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award, which hailed their 'warm and witty' approach. They lost out to Tate St Ives, prompting an editorial in the Museums Association Journal hailing GWL as 'ambitious and innovative' and urging a rethink of the purpose of that prize.
GWL aren't bitter though. Instead they responded with some 'warm and witty' new merchandise including best-selling mugs which proclaim 'I Love My Pubes' and t-shirts bearing the titles of key works of feminist literature from Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat to Ali Smith's How to Be Both.
As John looks forward to 2019 and the continuation of the library's diverse programme of events, from creative writing groups for Muslim women to an alternative Burns Night ceilidh, she reflects that 'it has been an amazing year with lots of young, and not so young, women and young men coming in, non-binary, trans people, who want to get involved in equality projects and changing the world for the better. All we are trying to do is be part of solutions, and not part of problems. I think it really is an important time for us.'
Glasgow Women’s Library is the only resource of its kind in Scotland. As well as a lending library, they house a treasure trove of historical and contemporary artifacts and archive materials that celebrate the lives, histories and achievements of women.