Libraries with physical books and archives where people go to research and study are becoming for, many universities, expensive non-core functions that are in the first line for financial cuts. The library in my own university – state of the art and built about 10 years ago – is now an echoing, people-free, book depositary. But my university has some kind of excuse – we are an online and distance teaching university. However, any library that contains precious artefacts and irreplaceable documents but relies on a university to look after and provide access to these is in a very precarious position. On Friday I attended a meeting about saving one of the most unique university ‘owned’ libraries in Europe The Women’s Library in London.
The Women’s Library is the oldest and most extensive collection of women’s history in Europe. It was developed from the collections of suffrage organisations and became known as the Fawcett Library, looked after by the Fawcett Society until 1977, when it was taken over by a polytechnic that became the present London Metropolitan University. In 2002 it moved into (lottery funded) purpose-built premises with a reading room, exhibition hall, lecture theatre, office and activity spaces. London Met. Uni. in the present shake up of UK higher education funding does not feel that it can afford to support this internationally unique institution.
There is a good campaign website and the Guardian has been running stories about importance of the library and supporting the campaign to keep it. The way ahead for the Library remains in doubt. It will be struggle to maintain its identity, which includes both the collection and the dedicated building and specialist librarians. Some other universities have expressed an interest in taking the collection. But given the present precarious state of most university funding might such a move be simply a temporary, and limited, breathing space on a route that ends with the dissipation of the library as an entity.
I have been an irregular user of the library myself, but valued the exhibitions I have seen there and the meeting place it provides for scholars of women’s lives. To lose the library would be a disaster. Who save’s libraries today?