In December 2015 an email landed in the inbox of the Feminist Library two 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. Volunteers of the Library decided to mobilise and began a campaign to try and secure its future, a campaign that we featured in our first ever blog!
Fast forward two and a half years, and after a lot of negotiations and false starts, the Library is about to embark on a new journey – it has recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to support the move to a new home!
After a long search, Southwark Council has offered the Library a new building to rent in Peckham, and they need to raise at least £30,000 for the move project, and to get the space ready to move into.
We sat down with Magda Oldziejewska, the Library’s Fundraising Coordinator, and Rose Sinclair, the Library’s Finance Administrator, to find out more about the move and how the local community can help make it happen.
So what can you tell us about the new space?
Magda – ‘It’s a really lovely space. It’s bigger and we now have the space to expand our collection. We’re going to have a meeting space that over the twice the size of what we currently use.
‘It’s already quite a buzzing community centre and we are looking forward to nurturing opportunities to collaborate. Everything about it is great. It’s named after a woman and there are a couple of other women’s charities in the building that we’re going to be sharing the space with.
‘We’re also in conversation with a refugee organisation who are currently based there about how we can set up the space so that they can stay and continue to provide services for refugees and asylum seekers.‘
Our struggle is well documented
Part of the reason they are raising funds is so that the space can be brought up to a better state than it is currently in, but they haven’t given themselves much room to manoeuvre in terms of undertaking the huge task of moving their vast collection.
Any money donated will go towards fitting out the new space, including new shelving, flooring and giving the walls a fresh lick of paint, the move itself, signage, and some legal costs that come with a massive logistical project that is moving a library.
‘We’re hoping to be moved by March (2019) – which is a bit tight. We are hoping to start on the work that is needed to bring the space up to a better standard in January.
‘It’s going to be tight but it’s not impossible… we will see! Southwark Council are being quite flexible.
‘Before we move we are trying to organise over 4000 books which haven’t been sorted out for a long time. Our collections team is going to need the support of volunteers plus we would love to get some help for the actual move itself.’
Anyone involved in the voluntary and community sector in Southwark will be aware of the well documented issues surrounding premises, as affordable space for small voluntary and community sector organisations becomes scarcer.
As an organisation that has been handed a lifeline, what would your advice be to groups who find themselves in similar situation to you?
‘I think it’s terrible – our struggle is well documented. Our approach could be a way that works for other organisations but it seems to affect those who are on the smaller side. They don’t have any money and often end up feeling powerless to the extent that they often shut down.
‘I think that there is a lot of power to be gained from shouting about your situation from the rooftops like we did – I’m sure we would have been out by now and homeless if it wasn’t for the fact that we raised our voices, and I feel like a lot of charities don’t feel like they have that power.’
Our focus is going to revolve a lot more on collaborating with the local community
The Library has been based on Westminster Bridge road for over 30 years, so is this the beginning of a new era? It must be quite sad to be leaving a space that they have called home for so long.
‘The way I see it – the whole of 2016 was spent mourning the loss of our home – we were feeling really sorry for ourselves. Now that we know it’s possible for us to have a bigger space that is affordable – it’s a worthwhile move. It took us a year for our mindsets to change and accept that it was time to move.
‘In some peoples’ minds I’m sure it would have been easier to stay. It is going to be a lot of work to move. At the same time it’s exciting!’
Another factor that is making the move much more appealing to the group is that they have been offered a 25 year lease by Southwark council - a somewhat unusual arrangement for a VCS organisation. By donating to the crowdfunding campaign people are investing in a project that has a life span of at least a quarter of a century.
So now that the Library has secured a new home, what is the vision and the dream for the library? The new space is 1,500sq ft, which is 50% bigger than their current cramped premises.
‘The hope is that we are able to not only expand our collection, but also expand our community programme that takes place on site.
‘We’ve always hosted a lot of events, and there’s always been a lot of things happening, but going forward our focus is going to revolve a lot more on collaborating with the local community’
‘Unfortunately we do live in a time where space is at a premium and it is often something that charities simply cannot afford.
‘We want to be that hub for groups who don’t have their own space.’
Plans to secure future funding are currently being worked on. Like thousands of other charities, the Feminist Library relies not only on the generosity of people donating to a crowdfunding scheme, or a friends scheme, but also aims to deliver ambitious projects on the back of securing grant funding.
‘One thing that we want to do next year is to get a full-time librarian. Not only so that the Library is open 5 days a week, but so that our whole space is accessible.
‘At the moment we are restricted to when we can run events – they have to coincide with when we are actually in the building as we are a volunteer-run organisation. That will hopefully change next year.
‘We realise we are lucky. We know that so many groups are struggling. It would be ideal to try and grow our network and raise awareness about the potential for us to collaborate with groups in our new space.’
Friends and supporters of the Feminist Library campaigning outside of Southwark Council's headquarters
What have you learned in the two years since we last sat down?
‘We have learned to communicate better with the council and accept that they have been facing their own funding pressures from central government
‘Whilst the relationships has been tumultuous we have developed a working relationship. I do feel that if it wasn’t for the press campaign it probably wouldn’t have worked out in our favour. At the same time I understand that they are facing huge pressures.’
Rose, who joins us midway through the interview, agrees: ‘One place where I’ve had sympathy for the council is that there is a bigger political story to be told here.
‘Central government are making economic choices whose consequences are landing squarely on the shoulders of local authorities, who are then unofficially told by way of being given certain powers, to act more in the way of a corporation.’
In the context of multiple challenges being faced by Voluntary and Community Sector organisation, the Feminist Library has been given the opportunity to really make their mark in a brand new home – but there is a long way to go.
Rose shares that opinion: ‘I think it’s a balancing act between dealing with the huge amount of stuff that is coming in… Once we get through all of this there is actually going to be this fantastic opportunity to try something new. What could that something else be?’
A sketch of what the new space may look like
Any initial ideas?
‘We work as a collective so we will all sit down and have a discussion about it, but I think everybody is quietly thinking about it.
‘We went to Glasgow recently for a social centres ‘gathering’ and we experienced the different ways that they interact with local communities. I was excited by the ones that had a really reciprocal relationship with the local community, where the local community is driving the agenda.
‘There is the basic problem of not enough money and too much need. However, there is scope to be optimistic. A way to mitigate the consequences of what is currently happening is by empowering community groups to provide care and support from within the communities that they work with.’
The Feminist Library has been around for over four decades now, saving women's histories - with over 7,000 books, 1,500 periodical titles and countless archives, pamphlets and ephemera - and providing a space in London for feminists and community groups to meet, organise, learn, create, or just have fun.
The supporters, volunteers, and staff of the Feminist Library have been on one hell of a journey since that letter dropped on their doormat two days before Christmas in 2015.
To the relief of all involved it looks like they are finally in a position where they can secure their future, but they need your help!
If you want to chip in a couple of quid and help this wonderful resource not just survive, but thrive, then click here.
Other ways that you can get involved
The Library are always on a lookout for new volunteers, especially now, with the upcoming busy time of the move. Get in touch with their volunteers coordinator, Katie, if you'd like to help: email@example.com.
Do you have a gift for fundraising? Would you like to help the Feminist Library reach its total goal of £65,000 for the move to build its dream home? Get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org.
Not into fundraising but keen to help the Library even further? Sign up to be a Friend by giving a regular monthly donation to help make the Library reach its 100% sustainable income goal this year.
The Feminist Library will be building its local community outreach and events programme. Want to be part of their exciting and growing events team? Get in touch with their events team coordinators, Chiara & Mariana, email@example.com.
Are you a local community group looking for a space for meetings or events? The Feminist Library want to hear from you! Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.