Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) is a grassroots organisation that aims to promote women’s history, lives and stories. It’s a truly unique space and as well as a lending library, GWL also houses archive and museum collections, like the Lesbian Archive and the National Museum of Roller Derby. We heard about it from a friend who had always wanted to go and thought it would be a great place for A Bitch in Time to explore for our debut.
Herstory of GWL. The GWL began in 1987 as the collective Women in Profile, who wanted to ensure women were represented in Glasgow’s year as city of European culture in 1990. Women in Profile was run by a dedicated team of volunteers organising events, workshops, exhibitions, projects and other activities from 1987-1990. In 1991 Women in Profile opened GWL. Its initial residence was in Garnethill, the location of Denise Mina’s novel Garnethill, which she wrote after attending a course at GWL. By 1994 the growth of GWL meant it needed to relocate, moving to 109 Trongate, nearby the original home of Glasgow Royal Maternity Hospital where key developments in caesarean sections were made. Its permanent residence is now in the East End of Glasgow, the base of Glasgow Women’s Housing Association which organised Rent Strikes in 1915.
(Cluelessly) using the archive
Ella: The entrance leads into the lending library and it was just a really lovely, cozy environment, like an oasis for women, if it’s possible to say that without sounding really cheesy. I instantly saw 15 books I would love to have sat down and read.
Natalie: I really loved how there were people just hanging out there – with other archives as soon as you get in there you feel like you need to know what you are doing. As it is a library, so quiet, going to the desk was a bit intimidating; I think if we haven’t appointment I would have be too nervous to ask questions and said sorry and thank you a million times.
E: I thought the location of GWL was great – it’s a couple of minute’s walk from Bridgetown Station so you don’t have to worry about faffing with buses. There’s no cafe in the library but we got some super cheap delicious baked potatoes around the corner from Pot & Kettle.
N: I found preparation for the archive quite stressful, we wanted to view parts of the Lesbian Archive – it is huge – which is great but makes it hard to navigate. I emailed Nicola, a lovely archivist at GWL, saying we were particularly interested in Camden Lesbian Centre and Black Lesbian Group and Scottish Women’s Aid, they let us know that these were massive collections linking the box collections and the online catalogue.
E: Also on their website they do say to get in touch if you want specific documents or are just generally interested but as we didn’t go with a specific project – we didn’t really have particular things we wanted to see – it was a bit tricky.
N: We turned up very underprepared too; arriving late for our appointment after sleeping through our alarm, underestimating how long it would take us to get there and not bringing a laptop despite Nicola advising we should – we were on holiday and couldn’t be bothered to carry it around but as we hadn’t decided what we wanted to see it was just really annoying for us
E: Oh God I forgot we slept through our alarm, that’s pretty embarrassing… Also the pencil – maybe not everyone knows to bring a pencil but you can only use pencils in most archives and I think it can help with confidence if you turn up with one. With the laptop, I would just bring one, we felt really silly having not!
N: I loved Nicola’s tour of the archive, it introduced us to really interesting material, like the iconic posters of the Zero Tolerance campaign, Mary MacArthur and Dorothy Dick. Archivists can’t always take the time to do this, it was very thoughtful of Nicola and really great opportunity to see not only the material but also how it was archived. It made me wish we had prepared better. If you are finding the online search overwhelming, which I do, contact the archive and ask what may seem like silly questions but it’s not your fault if you don’t understand.
E: The tour was great and so kind of Nicola. We weren’t able to attend any of their events but I think they would be a great way to get involved in women’s history if you are interested but don’t have a specific research angle or are slightly disorganised – particularly if you are local. They are held at GWL and locations across Scotland. I love the look of Women Making It – a fortnightly event that offers scrapbooking, badge-making, creative writing and film screenings.
N: The events look great – if we lived nearer would love to go to their screening of Flame in collaboration with Africa in Motion. How we went just didn’t really suit our aims, it was a bit like going to a library and saying I would like a book.
E: I really enjoyed going to the archive despite our lack of preparation. There is definitely something about holding the material, I think there’s a bit of a disconnect when you see stuff online as it separates you away from its original purpose – it’s harder to engage with historical content on a modern platform like a computer. Also being in an archive makes you feel like a detective which is super fun.
N: The archive is also part of creating history, for example this photographs from the Camden Lesbian Group – why was it taken and saved? How did they get to the GWL? Why is it archived? And what are we therefore not seeing?
E: We were really excited to see the Roller Derby Museum (the only in the world!) but it turns out its name was a little misleading. ‘Museum’ makes you think of somewhere you turn up to and look at things in your own time, not literally a bit of space in archive storage you have to ask someone to look at. I think a museum should be a place where you can learn as much or as little as you want.
Wandering Women: using GWL around the city
E: In Glasgow itself there seems to be a huge effort to promote women’s history and make it visible. There’s definitely a sense of pride in Glasgow’s history – it’s sort of presented as an alternative to traditional British history, like there are conscious efforts to distance itself from that.
N: the city itself is almost like a town planning experiment on using history in a different way. There is a reason there is a hugely successful Women’s Library, you can clearly see how it began grassroots. It is also shown through various projects throughout the city, such as Milk, “a cafe that provides a safe, supportive environment where refugee and migrant women in the Glasgow community can receive employability support”–the GWL is part of a wider movement even if not explicitly.
E: The Walking Tours that the GWL have created have loads of information and are really fascinating but were hard to ‘act’ out on own with just a printed copy. There are guided tours which I imagine would be really fun and informative.
N: Would still recommend looking up the walking tours but as it’s hard enough to navigate a city, I think the best thing to do would be to read through the tours and familiarise yourself. If you are planning on doing the tours with someone, I think it would work really well if you split up the tours and present parts of the city to each other- GWL also have £3 downloadable audio tours.
Top tips: “Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?” “No. Why, does it sound like I do?
- Explore the collections online as much as you can before you go
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions either before you go by email or whilst you are there
- Bring a pencil, paper and a laptop
- If you have the opportunity, go to one of the GWL events!