25 Years of Glasgow Women's Library

As Glasgow Women's Library celebrate their 25th birthday, The Skinny takes a tour of the Bridgeton premises where all are welcome. We find a grassroots project of history and potential, that's making a real difference to its local community

Article by Rosamund West | 22 Sep 2016

It’s easy to reach the Glasgow Women’s Library. From the City Centre, take a four minute train from the lower level in Central two stops east to Bridgeton then walk around the corner; from the West End take the train from Partick and you’ll be there in under 20 minutes.

These tiny distances belie the economic and social differences between journey beginning and end – Bridgeton is in the bottom 5% of deprived communities in the UK, an area of Glasgow still marked by multi-generational poverty where issues around education, health and sectarianism are still being addressed. It feels like a different world to the sparkle of Argyle Street or the leafy Victorian villas of Hyndland. Glasgow has many faces, and this is one that the glittering city development campaigns would prefer to pretend is already fixed.

Glasgow Women’s Library would rather do the opposite. They shine a light on the city’s past and present, and work to improve lives and opportunities on a grassroots level. An oasis of community activism currently celebrating their 25th birthday, they set up in their permanent Bridgeton home in 2013 after seven years in temporary accommodation. Their choice of location, in a former library, was a considered one, says GWL's Sue John. “It’s a public building that’s neutral – it has no historical affiliation with either side of the sectarian divide, so it’s open to all.”

GWL are focussed on developing that open door policy and bringing in as many people from the local community (and across the city) as possible. They're aware that crossing the threshold into alien institutions, especially those that breach perceived class boundaries, can be intimidating. So they've stripped out much that would create a barrier to access – alarms, gates, cameras – and replaced them with a welcome desk of friendly faces greeting each visitor.  The only remaining barrier, wire mesh over the ground floor windows, is a pragmatic requirement. Sue hopes that they will soon be able to replace them with something more in keeping with the nature of the space – bespoke artworks that protect and enlighten simultaneously.

Contained within Glasgow Women’s Library are archives, exhibitions, events, education programmes, a lending library. Practical literacy courses are offered for diverse strands of the local community. They hold a donated archive of Glasgow women’s history, from the 1860s onwards including the city’s female suffrage movement; documents of the Women’s Liberation movement; the Lesbian Archive; a history of zine culture; and contemporary artefacts from the opening ceremony of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

As is necessary when documenting a group with historically limited access to education (remember how most women weren’t taught to read and write until quite recently?) they collect both documentation and material culture. So, physical items which tell a story from female history at a time when historical narrative was written by the upper class male.

The exhibition and events programme is staged in what was historically the men’s reading room (a space disproportionately larger than the women’s reading room, which now houses the offices). Before GWL moved in it was being used as a lunch club for pensioners, featuring budgies and a garden shed where the men could go to escape their wives. The Library still offers a space for such communities to meet, to read, explore the exhibitions or watch film screenings. Group outings are arranged to exhibitions in Glasgow and further afield, with free artist and curator talks offering a way in to cultural activity for people who may previously have felt excluded.

A visit to GWL on an average weekday afternoon offers a snapshot of the tremendous energy of this creative hub. The building is permeated by a hum of activity – there is no shushing here. Smiling volunteers greet incomers at the door; an exhibition is being installed, including Lauren Sagar and Sharon Campbell’s dazzling Chandelier of Lost Earrings. Upstairs, a seminar is being held; Library founder Adele Patrick looks up from a meeting on an adjoining table to smile hello.

In the archives, community volunteers, professors, doctoral researchers work side by side on a spectrum of projects, while downstairs in the lending library students and locals sit side by side, heads buried in books from an eclectic range of female literary and art works. The back wall looks like craft corner, with a line of badge makers ready to be set to work for whatever new project comes through the door. It is a vibrant space, alive with potential – exactly as a library should be. 

Glasgow Women's Library, 23 Landressy Street, G40 1BP
Open 9.30am-5pm, Mon, Tue, Wed & Fri, 9.30am-7.30pm Thu & 12-4pm Sat
Events happen year-round, check the website for the latest news http://womenslibrary.org.uk/