Inside London's Feminist Library, Which Faces Eviction
London’s Feminist Library is teeming with feminist literature, radical pamphlets, academic texts on womanhood and also faces eviction from its premises. Housed on the second and third floors of what was a Greater London Authority owned building given to non-profit organisations, its location in Newington, a rapidly gentrifying area, threatens its very existence as the sole library of this sort in the country. Requested by Southwark Council to pay enough rent to match the market price (double what they’re used to paying) or face eviction, a question mark hangs over the storage of 7000 books and 1500 periodicals and journals. These include everything from “Overcoming Binge Eating” to “The Essays of Virginia Woolf”, from "The Lesbian Survival Manual” to “Women As Interpreters of the Visual Arts”. The library is becoming more diverse to keep up with the times, but all its history and intentions for development could be left with nowhere to go, should talks with Southwark Council to extend the rental period fall through.
MAKERS caught up with Yuki Shirota, a volunteer at the library, and Sarah O’Mahoney, trustee at the library, to find out what London’s Feminist Library means to them.
About 80% of the books and periodicals here couldn't be found anywhere else and we're constantly receiving new books, many of them donated. People come here to study and learn about everything from women on TV to campaign tactics of the Suffragettes and the women in the peace camps at Greenham Common. We talk of waves of feminism but there’s always stuff going on - I’ve got newsletters from India and Spain from the 1980s. It might seem dated, but the campaign methods are all very relevant now. The things that the women’s liberation movement were campaigning for are sadly things that are being campaigned for now, just in different ways, like the Women’s Equality Party.
After being told in February that we would have to pay a higher rent, we managed to delay it so that we can officially be here until the end of October. We’ve had so much support locally and even internationally and we’re not unrealistic in that we know that we’ve got to be able to fundraise.
But the difficulty is that we’re not running this the same way as a business, our intentions and purpose for being is different. Ideally we’d love to be open five days a week all the time, pay all our volunteers and become a women’s centre, but at the moment we have to focus on keeping the library open at an accessible level. One book from the library that I’ve been reading recently is "The Hammer Blow", about how ten women from East Timor disarmed a warplane. As part of their campaign they would enter shops selling unlawfully logged tropical hardwood, remove them as an act of 'ethical shopkeeping' and deliver them to the nearest police station. It’s just the imaginativeness of the campaigns and looking at how they made them attention-grabbing. Even when you have moments of “Is anything going to change?” you know that there have been steps forward. A line in the book says “If you want peace you have to make it here and now” and I totally agree. We can rage against the big things, but we can also take action to improve small things, or make them better. That’s how it all starts.
I first found out about the Feminist Library when I saw they held a zine fair here. I study at Goldsmiths and I love the idea of a space like this, dedicated to women. I then began volunteering here because it’s such a valuable community space. Women can come in and look at books, meet and talk with other women, have a cup of tea, meet activists. It’s more than a library. There’s a whole community that surrounds it and I love it; it’s like family.
The best thing I’ve ever come across here is a compilation of short Sci-Fi stories by female authors. It’s called "Women of Wonder" and was published in the 1970s. I found it extraordinarily eye-opening to discover there was a collective of female authors writing Sci-Fi in the 1970s and they were trying to make their own way. I’d never heard their names, despite being quite into Sci-Fi. I used to think Sci-Fi was so male and this discovery made me realise I was wrong, in a good way. Last year, Southwark Council told us the rent would double as we need to start paying rent that meets the market price. But we’re not here to make a profit. That said, since the threat of eviction, we’re definitely getting more recognition, and that’s changing things. The value of a library like this is huge. When you look at a Riot Grrrl zine from the 1990s, you can feel that it’s been photocopied and printed over and over again, you can see the ink smudges. Online, there’s no serendipity, you can’t come across a text by accident so easily. Searching online is so selective and it can then accelerate these stories being forgotten.
To support, volunteer or donate to the Feminist Library, visit www.feministlibrary.co.uk.
Photo Credit: Sophie Wilkinson