There has been a “Women’s Library” in London since 1926, but this May it moves from its own premises in Aldgate to the fourth floor of the London School of Economics (pictured). The collection contains 60,000 books and pamphlets, press cuttings and banners about the British feminist movement. But I doubt the world’s largest library for social and political sciences—where I work as a research student—needs a special section called “Women’s Library”.
The publicity leaflet for the collection says: “From the suffragettes to Bridget Jones—Europe’s most extensive collection of women’s history comes to LSE”. This seems strange on several counts. It’s hardly as if women’s history could be contained within that spectrum (personally, I’d be more interested in Wonder Woman, Alice in Wonderland and even the Queen of Hearts). If we are going to have a section on women’s history, then perhaps we should also have one on men’s history. If it is a women’s library, might there not also be an argument for having books written by women in it—from Jane Austen to E.L. James. And since the collection could never hope to represent the whole of women’s history, it would be much better to give it a specific focus and name it after an individual who embodies that, like the suffragette Emily Pankhurst or LSE co-founder Beatrice Webb.
The leaflet boasts, in a faintly comical way, that the LSE Library already holds “significant quantities of material relating to the lives and experiences of women. In the archives area alone LSE has identified 1,500 boxes.” Sure, there needs to be a section in the library on the history of feminism. But trying to confine the lives and experiences of women to a certain number of identifiable boxes is a step back. It would be more encouraging, for those of us who work there, if the contribution of women was not confined to one section, but was evident on all the shelves.
Originally published in the Intelligent Life Magazine online, 16 April 2013