The Feminist Library story
– preserving herstories, by any means necessary
By Magda Oldziejewska
It feels like the right time to reflect on the Feminist Library struggle to stay alive. The story is not just about a campaign to keep the doors of another library open. It is a story of one of the very few remaining feminist spaces around, trying to keep afloat, against all odds. But it also seems to be a reflection of the times that we live in, of the wider context of gentrification in London, and beyond.
The story encapsulates the struggle to keep a community space alive, one of the very few feminist hubs, as well as to preserve and promote women’s voices, so often still unheard in our society. It is a reflection of a deeper underlying truth about how far feminism still has to go before it’s achieved its goals – until women’s voices are no longer marginalised – a ‘special’ interest that we seemingly cannot afford in the age of austerity… As if being a woman was some kind of a luxury…
The past 20 months have been challenging and frustrating, but also exciting and re-invigorating – particularly since we’ve found a new space for the Library, but also due to the incredible response of our supporters and the activist community after we’ve launched our campaign to save the Library.
When on the 23rd December 2015, the Library collective received a notification from its landlord – the local Council – that our rent was going to increase by 150% by the 1st March 2016, the overwhelming feeling was of frustration and deep disappointment with this injustice. The demanded rent was approximately 130% of the whole annual budget of the Library, making the increase seem completely unachievable for a small, volunteer-run charity. After initial meetings, the position of the Council seemed to be unwavering. The Local Authority had a ‘responsibility’ to the taxpayer to get the best returns for their property, so that the money could be invested back into the local community… Or at least that was their story.
And then we launched our campaign. Approximately 16,000 signatures on our petition and extensive press coverage seemed to impress the Council, as the lines of communication suddenly opened up. We’ve proven our worth, it seemed. Despite the fact that the Local Authority officials did no reduce their rent demands, we did gain some precious time to allow us to relax a bit and strategize for a more productive search for a new home. To their credit, the Council even offered us help with our search for a new space. Not very successfully, but they did.
Eventually, within a few months, we managed to find a new home for the Library by ourselves, which is where we come to the exciting part of the story. Although it took us some time to mentally say goodbye to our home of over 30 years, to let go of the idea that we should stay no matter what, in the end we did when we found a new space – in a place that would bring us closer to the community.
Personally, I think that there were four massive turning points that in our minds transformed this story from one of struggle against what seemed to be impossible odds to one of gratitude to our community and, gradually even, excitement for the future. The first was the petition that we launched and the incredible, global, community response that it received. The second was when we met the OKRS team, who are behind the new community and creative centre that we hope will be our new home. The third was when we discovered our – feminist! – design team that are going to be bringing our new space together for us. And finally, just a couple of weeks ago, at our Summer Fayre, when we saw the team bring the new Feminist Library space to life (admittedly, on paper) for the first time. It gave us an incredible boost of energy to see those designs for the first time. It made our future feel more real, more tangible, less precarious somehow.