London’s Feminist Library Faces Shutting Down 30 Years Of History
“It is a place for me to go. I am happy there. I don’t have to explain myself to anybody and they don’t have to explain themselves to me.”
For more than 30 years, the Feminist Library has provided a space for those interested in the women’s movement. But now the centre is facing closure after Southwark Council announced the library would have to start paying £30,000-a-year in rent, rather than the £12,000 it currently pays in service charges.
So far more than 15,700 people have signed an online petition calling for the library to be saved.
It was originally destined for closure on March 1 – the first day of Women’s History Month. It was then given an extension until April 30. This week, the council granted a six-month deadline for the library to pay the new rent charges.
Ann Rossiter has used the library for years. The Irish feminist and campaigner is a member of Speaking of IMELDA (Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion), a performance group that uses the library as a “safe space” to meet and rehearse.
Rossiter tells the Huffington Post UK how essential the library is to so many groups like hers.
She says: “The Feminist Library has always been very welcoming of us. As you can imagine pro choice activists are not welcome everywhere, and not welcome, particularly in Irish communities – historically, at least.
“But the Feminist Library has always provided us with a safe space and that has included our meetings and also a place where we can film.”
Rossiter says that one of the biggest benefits of the library in Westminster Bridge Road, is how accessible it is. If rents are increased then the library will probably have to move further out of central London.
Addressing what she would do without the facility, Rossiter says: “We would lose two major things. We lose the archives – or access to it. I don’t know how or where it will end up.
“And also the library isn’t just an archive. The library is a living, breathing space. We would lose that. You hear from different generations and debate with each other. This could be lost if the library goes.”
The library is home to more than 7,000 books, 1,500 periodical titles and boasts an extensive archive of feminist pamphlets, papers and posters. It also provides a space for meetings, exhibitions and events.
Anna Pigott is a volunteer at the library and created the petition, which garnered thousands of signatures in just a few days. Pigott says that the library is “very much a living and breathing archive and a meeting space, which is such a rare thing in London these days”.
Yet Pigott says that she was not particularly surprised that the library is now facing closure. She adds: “So many services are being squeezed and attacked, and so many other community spaces, libraries and women’s services have had to shut their doors.”
Nonetheless, Pigott says she remains positive and is “overwhelmed” by the level of support she has received.
“We have had messages of support from other similar archives and projects around the world, as well as people like Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Mary Beard. The community supporting the library, both locally and globally is incredible.”
Stressing how important the library is to her, Rossiter adds: “You meet all of these people who are just amazing. There are things that we could improve on but a welcoming space is very important and you are never questioned about your age, your ethnicity, your political beliefs. I wouldn’t have a word said against it.”
Pigott believes the need for a feminist library is as great as it has ever been. She says: “I think there is still a hell of a long way to go to achieve equality and empowerment for all women and people experiencing gender-based oppression around the world.
“There is also still a long way to go within feminism – mainstream feminism excludes so many people. There is so much work to be done in terms of Intersectionality – understanding where gender intersects with other oppressions, like race, class, trans-issues. It’s important to make space within feminism for other voices and to examine the privilege at work within feminist spaces.”
The library records history that “no one else would”, Pigott says, stressing: “It is so important to have this resource and build on it for the future.”
But Southwark Council has said, “Fundamentally the organisation is not able to afford premises in zone 1 central London”. Councillor Fiona Colley, cabinet member for finance, performance and modernisation, said that the library has been granted a six-month extension “on the clear understanding that the current momentum to find a new home will be maintained and that there should be no expectation of extensions beyond this point”.
The Labour councillor says: “Our position remains that we are simply no longer able to subside rents at a local level for an national organisation just because it happens to be based in our borough.”
She says that the council was not “trying to close or evict the library for our own ends”, adding: “We just don’t think that most people would expect us to offer rent free premises to the library to the detriment of other crucial council services.”