May 2, 2012

Women’s and workers’ libraries under threat


In another heartbreaking piece of news from the libraries front line, the Women’s Library and Trade Union Congress Library in London are under threat. Both are currently housed by London Metropolitan University, which has announced that it can no longer afford to keep the collections open. There’s been some mainstream coverage of the prospective closure of the Women’s Library — including pieces in the Bookseller and the Guardian this week, and a petition FAO the useless Michael Gove – but so far less of a response to the fate of the Trade Union Congress Library.  Here’s a statement released by the trade union UNISON in March:

It is with profound regret that UNISON learned yesterday of the University’s Board of Governors’ decision to seek new homes for The Women’s Library and Trades Union Congress Library Collections.

Social justice, the strides towards equality and the campaigns fought by those unwilling to accept injustice lie at the heart of these collections and they have given our students a real opportunity to engage with these movements and personal histories. These special collections truly emphasized the now seemingly lost intention of London Met Uni’s original aims to widen participation and to promote social justice by offering our students these truly unique resources.

The dedicated staff at both Libraries – who were not involved in these decisions in any way, despite seeking input into the reviews that lead to this decision – will now look to the future.

UNISON, and the staff of these collections who we represent, will continue to campaign to protect these valuable collections.

With libraries closing left, right and centre, there’s been something of a ‘so what?’ response from some quarters. These are specialist libraries for academic users and researchers. And far more important that we preserve community libraries as promoters of reading and social hubs — so goes the argument. But the material collected in these depositories — amounting in the women’s library alone to 60,000 books and pamphlets, a treasure trove of personal letters, and 11,000 objects – is for the most part not digitised. If we do away with the collections, make them inaccessible to researchers, we restrict our recording of history, silencing voices of protest.

London Met has said that if new homes for the collections can’t be found by the end of the year they’ll reduce opening hours to one day a week, with a further review after three years that could well see the collections close altogether. It’s unlikely that the university will find the money to keep the collections open: documents leaked last year revealed that it  might have to scrap two thirds of its degree courses after terrible financial management left it with debts of £30m. It’s also highly improbable that the current government, with its record of sexist spending and its disastrous commitment to austerity measures, will be digging in its pockets. Realistically, and sadly, this one looks like a job for enterprising fundraising. The Women’s Library says it needs £500,000 a year to stay open. Where do I send my donation?


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.