By Zubeida Mustafa
WOULD you expect to see Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag ka Darya on the shelf of a public library in Glasgow? Probably not. But I actually found Annie Apa, as she was fondly called, in the Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL). The discovery was made more exciting by the fact that the library was a distinguished one as only a feminist library can be.
Set up in 1991, the GWL has grown and never looked back. In 2015, it celebrated the 25th year of its existence. Containing 30,000 books on women or by women (about 20,000 writers), the GWL is distinct from other libraries by the feminist ownership shown by those who manage it and those who use it.
When Donna Moore, the adult literacy and numeracy development worker, and Wendy Kirk, the librarian, met me to talk about the GWL, I was overwhelmed by their enthusiasm, pride and passion. They reminded me of one of our leading feminist intellectuals, Nighat Saeed Khan. In 2011, Nighat had taken me round the Institute of Women’s Studies, Lahore, speaking with the same passion about the wealth of hidden material she had carefully stored. She was looking for a donor to help her catalogue and archive her collection.
A library in Scotland is a reminder of women’s power.
The feminist spirit that Wendy and Donna displayed vis-à-vis the treasure trove of knowledge under their care is what bonds the global sisterhood of women. They use books for their feminist activism; as a speaker said in the film March, a GWL-RCS (Royal Conservatoire Scotland) production, “Freedom is born from wisdom”. And one may add, wisdom is born from knowledge. Without awareness, conscientisation and the involvement of a critical mass of women, a feminist movement cannot change the lives of women in any country.
And it is the love of books and the commitment to women’s rights that combine in the making of a successful women’s library. The basic goal of such a library is always the empowerment of women by using knowledge as the catalyst. The librarian must be a committed activist and teacher to inspire those she interacts with.
The GWL with its paid staff of 20, and 80-100 volunteers, is doing just that. It runs a lifelong learning and adult literacy programme to empower women. The library has a collection of books, archives, historical and contemporary artefacts that are related to women and commemorate their lives and achievements. Additional activities the GWL organises are not exactly book-related but their focus is on women. Thus its programme lists a number of events organised by the library such as talks and discussions on women, writing competitions and workshops, art exhibitions, film screenings, meetings of reading groups and heritage walks to create awareness of women’s histories in the city.
The women’s library strives for self-sufficiency by raising donations from the public and through activities. All the books have been donated. Innovative ideas have been introduced such as getting people to sponsor a book, a shelf or even a library section for as little as 10 to 1,000 as a tribute to a living woman.
Having emerged as the hub of information in Scotland on women and a focal point for activities designed to empower and gel them into a vibrant integrated community, the GWL is a permanent reminder of women’s hidden power that deserves to be celebrated. It has a membership of 3,800 that can borrow books, and an estimated 15,000 guests visit it every year.
The GWL’s pronounced interest in the political dimension of women’s lives is remarkable. Suffragettes receive a lot of attention. Donna Moore was most vocal when showing me the suffragette memorabilia displayed with great pride in the library. Although the suffrage movement began in England, it received a boost from the Scottish suffragettes’ zeal. Even today when women have won the vote there are concerns about the political status of women, and the GWL extends its support to movements such as the Women 50:50 campaign that was launched to improve the representation of women in parliament, there being only 35 pc in the Scottish legislature at present.
That is what one expects libraries to be — institutions that empower people. A women’s library empowers women. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them around. Probably 300 or so all over the world but this is just a guess because there is no international organisation linking them together. Wendy attended a conference of librarians from women’s libraries in Mexico many years ago which was a chance event and no other meeting has taken place since.
The women’s library has been an agent of social change in many ways, as confirmed by Donna Moore from her experience of interacting with women she has taught. They gain confidence. That empowers them, she tells me. And we know what a lot of difference that makes.