By Zubeida Mustafa
As you approach the stately Glasgow Women’s Library at Bridgeton (Glasgow) there is no way you can miss it. A large name plaque in black announces its presence.
The “extraordinariness” of the library is visible in the mural painted on a fence across the road in front of the building. It depicts the struggle of an Inuit girl, Sedna, who resists the brutality of her father who wants her to marry a man she doesn’t want to. He pushes her into the sea and chops off her fingers when she clings to the boat to save herself. She is later declared by her people the Goddess of the Sea. The most distant planet of the solar system is also named after Sedna.
Only an institution fighting for women’s rights would instal images of this mythology near its premises.
The library’s origins go back to 1991 when Glasgow was selected as the European Capital of Culture for the yesr. To ensure that the achievements of women were not missed out in the celebrations, the project “women in profile” was created to facilitate which the GWL was set up.
It has grown from a collection of books and archives to become a hub of activities related to women.
The library moved to its present premises in 2010 when Glasgow’s famous Mitchell’s library vacated the building in one of the suburbs. The women’s library which had been squeezed into a small room there could spread out its wings and display its impressive collection of 30,000 books and archives that have been donated by members and non-members alike.
Cataloguing this huge array of books by women, on women and for women (though men also read them) is not an easy job. Wendy Kirk, the librarian, has been working on the classification with the help of volunteers. The material keeps coming in.
The day I visited the library to meet the staff, Donna Moore, the adult literacy worker, told me that the previous week they had received the diaries, letters and some writings of a nurse who had worked in a hospital in Glasgow in the early nineteenth century. Such archives attract researchers working on women’s histories. Even readers interested in the lives of women find such material very readable.
Only books do not tell stories. Memoribilia also depict the lives and works of people. Two fascinating items on display at the GWL were an umbrella stand and a chandelier. The umbrella stand had been given to the suffragettes incarcerated in Glasgow’s Duke Street Prison to paint to keep them busy. They did a wonderful job using the three main colours of their movement, namely white, green and purple. Each of these colours stands for purity, hope and dignity respectively.
When the prison was closed down, the stand was discarded as something no more needed. A knowledgeable social worker detected it lying by the roadside and brought it to the local authorities from where it reached the GWL.
The chandelier that has been set up on a table has earrings hanging on it. These have been sent by women — single pieces as the other of the pair had been lost.
There are sashes which symbolise the march of the suffragettes and more.
The library stores much material from the past that throws light on the lifestyle of women of yore. Be they dress patterns from the 1930s, or the Scottish Women’s Liberation Newsletters of the 1970s they attract attention. Clippings from a women’s magazine’s Agony Aunt’s columns giving tips to readers have been collected to shed light on the norms and social values of women in the 1800s. Many of the tips would amuse the reader of 2016.*
The library remains focused on its main goal of empowering women. The GWL’s website announces, “ We also support thousands of women across Scotland every year to improve their lives through our services and programmes, including support and activities that tackle a wide range of issues from poverty and women’s health, sexuality and surviving violence.”
And how is this done? Through over 200 activities such as film screenings, guided walks and core programmes which include adult literacy and numeracy, black and minority ethnic women’s projects and workshops and classes to enhance women’s education.
The GWL proves beyond doubt that without education no life can be improved. The education might be in a structured framework or based on informal information and learning. Thus Donna Moore actually conducts classes on a one-to-one basis with students who might be drop-outs or enrolled in universities but are struggling to get through. The informal education comes through the guided walks where women’s achivements are celebrated.
*Tips from Agony Aunt:
HOPEFUL AMATEUR: In reference to your desire to go on the stage we can only say that we strongly urge you to abandon the idea. It is a position of terrible danger.
EDEL WEISS: An unmarried lady, if young, does not usually tell an unmarried gentleman that ‘she is very pleased to have seen him’ on any occasion. Write an ordinary note of thanks.
CITHERA wishes to know ‘whether tea leaves are good for rabbits or not ‘. Neither good nor harm, in moderation; but tea leaves are not British, and rabbits are best fed on the vegetables of our own country.
IVY: You have asked us a lot of absurd questions, which of course we do not intend to answer, but before consigning your letter to the waste paper basket we wish to ask you to learn the spellings of the following easy words: raspberry (you had it raspberry), whose (whos), amiss (amis), right (write). Also we might mention that you also misx the singular number with the plural, punctuate in the wrong places, omit capital letters, and write a disgraceful hand. It would be wiser of you to improve your education instead of ‘reading jollie novels’.
The writer is grateful to Shamima Hasan for facilitating her visits to the library.