Is There a Space in the Modern World for a Feminist Library?

Well, according to Magda Oldziejewska there is.

Speaking of the library and the treasures it houses she says: “Until we come to a point where feminism is no longer needed we need resources like these.”

“Until they are the books we read in school and find in every library we need a feminist library.”

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Housed on the first floor of a low-rise brown brick building on Westminster Bridge road, the library includes over 7000 fiction and nonfiction books and 1,500 periodical titles from around the world. The library, which has recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, is also an event and meeting space, runs a weekend bookshop and supports research, activist and community projects. More importantly it is a safe space.

They are keen to stress that they are entirely volunteer led and are a registered charity that is entirely self-funded. Magda is the Southwark based Feminist Library’s volunteer premises co-ordinator. It turns out that this role has taken on added significance recently and you’re about to find out why.

Campaign

An email landed in the inbox of the feminist library three days before Christmas. It was from Southwark council and you’d be right in guessing that it wasn’t an early Christmas present. Far from it – it was a letter from the premises department with a demand for an immediate increase in their rent to £30,000 a year, rather than the £12,000 they were paying in service charges.

If they failed to agree to this they would be evicted on March 1st – ironically on the first day of women’s history month.
Members of the library decided to mobilise and this is where their campaign began. A petition was set up that has since gathered almost 16,000 signatures. A drive to garner media attention resulted in a rush of coverage from the likes of The Guardian and the Telegraph.

The council began to take notice after the library arranged a protest outside of the council offices at Tooley Street on the 24th of Feb.

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The feminist library carefully planned the protest to coincide with a meeting of the council assembly. And it was a big one – the assembly were set to agree Southwark’s budget for the next three years.

Over a 100 people gathered to join a ‘read in’ – a plurality of voices rose and fell as one reading from a variety of feminist literature. For any bystanders it was compelling stuff. Compelling enough, at least, for the leader of the council, Peter John, to pop out and introduce himself, and compelling enough for members of the library to be granted permission to present their petition to the assembly itself.

Several meetings then took place with library representatives and senior visitors from Southwark council, including Cllr Fiona Colley, who is the Cabinet member for finance, modernisation and performance. Negotiations appeared at an impasse after the library was offered a two month extension.

However, to the surprise of the library the council then went further and agreed a six month extension from April, marking a striking victory for the campaign.

Cllr Colley has always been keen to stress that the council has been forced into this approach when dealing with organisations such as the feminist library. She said: "The council has a moral and legal duty to ensure it gets best value for its assets for the residents of our borough and given that we have had funding cuts of £47 million and the building is a valuable asset in a zone 1, central London location, we can no longer subsidise the rents and have asked for the open market value rent." 

So how did the library achieve such success?

Magda Oldziejewska is convinced that early efforts to engage with the media, after the release of their petition, were vital to the success of their campaign. She said: “We drew up a press release and then it was sent out to our press list.

“A few local newspapers picked it up first and then on the second or third day the Guardian picked it up and it exploded.”

The campaign prompted dozens of support messages from all over the world.

Magda added: “From starting the petition to the press campaign which happened within a few days was amazing – we never expected to get 15,000 within a few days.”

It terms of their relationship with the council Magda stated that before the campaign started there was very little leeway to negotiate on the new rent demands. The line from the council was that in affect they would be evicted unless they agreed to the new terms.

She said: “It wasn’t a coincidence that the council started serious negotiations after the press coverage and demonstrations.”

Southwark CAN had met representatives from the feminist library back in February and offered support with the campaign to think about how they could negotiate with the council, and what they could do as an organisation to be ready to cope with the changes ahead.

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Magda highlighted what she had found useful about this: ‘I think what you’re doing is great because you’re trying to connect people. Consistently what I’ve seen when I’ve been to speak with different groups who are experiencing similar issues to us with local authorities is a lack of communication and a lack of awareness of what is going on. Community Southwark has helped massively with that.’

A key weapon in the library’s arsenal was also the ability to quote council policy back to them.

A particular gem from a recently approved Cabinet report highlights ‘the need for a thriving Voluntary and Community Sector that mobilises community action and makes best use of community resources, skills, knowledge and spaces’.

This was cited in all press coverage of the campaign and was also presented, along with the petition, to the Southwark council Cabinet meeting on the 15th of March. The very same meeting saw the library being granted a 6 month extension to find premises or pay the new rent charges.

Going Forward

The Feminist Library’s plight will not come as a surprise to many in the current climate of austerity. Many libraries, women’s organisations, and longstanding community projects have been forced to close, including Lambeth Women's Project, Peckham Black Women's Centre, and the London Irish Women's Centre.

The fight for the library's future is far from over and they will almost certainly have to find new premises in the next 6 months, in part with the help of Southwark Council. But the fact that they have managed to achieve a stay of execution is a testament to the success of their campaign – to whip up support and media coverage, to seek help from those in the know in regards to how Southwark council operates, and to get a local authority to engage in meaningful negotiation.

So it seems like there is space in the modern world for a feminist library, at least for another six months.

Southwark CAN helped the feminist library with their campaign. If you would like any advice or support for campaign, or would like to set up your own, get in touch! engage@communitysouthwark.org.

 

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