credit Alisha Vaswani

Visiting Glasgow Women’s Library

By Alisha Vaswani

Alisha explores its extensive LGBTQ+ archives and exhibitions dedicated to women’s history.

Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) has come a long way since its modest beginnings at Garnethill. Stepping through the doors of its present location in Bridgeton, I was transported to a shop front, at the corner of Hill and Dalhousie Street, that seemed unassuming for the UK’s only accredited women’s museum. 

The library first opened its doors in 1991, and was intended as a place to celebrate the work of women and support female academics. Their path to success was far from straightforward: they had to relocate several times, due to their collections getting too large, and often faced issues with funding. However, it has since enjoyed three fruitful decades of book collecting, recruiting volunteers, and curating an impressive archive that now takes the form of both a meticulously organised in-person library, as well as an enormous online resource. Looking through the online catalogue, you can find books on almost any subject, penned exclusively by female authors. This is an incredible resource to browse through for academic purposes, and a hidden gem for Glasgow’s student community.

What makes this library so unique is how it feels both rooted in, and yet completely distinct, from the work it houses. A quick glance through its online catalogue conjures up recommendations of classic titles, like Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, but the narrative that the library presents is far removed from Friedan’s predominantly heterosexual and cisgender notions of feminist theory. When I visited the library earlier this year, the display in their ground floor exhibition room, OUT in the Archive, existed as a dedication to the history of the library’s LGBTQ+ community and their activism.

The archive was the main focus of my visit: a wry, yet heart-warming glimpse into what life was like for these activists. From the staging of a lesbian Pantomime (I, for one, would pay to see it), to the formation of a Glasgow edition of New York’s iconic Lesbian Avengers, the archive provides an idiosyncratic account of queer history, straight from the source. A display that particularly caught my eye was the Glasgow Lesbian Avengers’ demands against Section 28: their list of demands included assurances that lesbian and gay publications would not be banned from libraries, and was printed, aptly, on pink paper. Walking through the archives, and looking through the images and documents, I couldn’t help but think that these stories of queer women would not be available anywhere else. This institution, set up to celebrate women’s history, has since garnered a rich and storied history of its own.

In the years since these women worked to exact positive change at the library, the institution has stuck to its activist roots. A flyer detailing events at the library included a Women and Climate Change Zine Making Workshop, as well as an online event discussing the accomplishments of women in colour. Speaking with the librarian, Wendy Kirk, about her perspective on why we still need women’s institutions, she said that “the reason behind the library being established is still here, really. It looks at the need to celebrate and champion women’s accomplishments and history, and also preserve that history.”

Wendy’s words emphasised how preservation has become a crucial part of GWL in the years since its foundation. Though still existing as an educational resource, since the internet now allows access to women’s work through books or journal articles, the main function of the library now lies in exhibiting its history. This includes the activism of its founders, and how their principles and goals were met and surpassed, as well as shining a light on other women’s institutions. On the day of my visit, for instance, the upstairs exhibit was dedicated to the history of Dundee Women’s Library. Although still very much a tranquil safe haven for readers and academics, GWL now feels like one massive love-letter to its original cause, and the people that have made its success possible.

Find out more about Glasgow Women’s Library here.


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