17 July, 2007

The Women's Library

Since both my short and long paper topics focus on female authors, I decided that I should begin my research at The Women's Library in London. I filled out an application for a one day reading pass which can be filled out again each time you want to use their resources. The reading room itself is located on the second floor of the library and has over 60,000 books, periodicals, catalogues, archival collections, finding aids, and visual objects. It was established in 1926 as the Library of the London Society for Women's Service led by Millicent Fawcett. The Women's Library was renamed in 2002 and is now part of London Metropolitan University.

The first floor of the library is an exhibition hall that can be accessed by people who do not fill out reader card applications. The exhibition that was on display today was called "What Women Want". It focused on the struggles both past and present that women face as they create balanced and meaningful lives for themselves. One of the first display items that caught my eye was a banner created in 1908 by Mary Lowndes to be carried in the writer's section of the Procession of Great Women Suffragists. It said,"Mary Wollstonecraft, Pioneer." That was especially exciting for me to see. The Women's Library itself actually has a second edition copy of Wollstonecraft's A Vindication on the Rights of Woman.
As someone who is personally interested in women's studies, I was very moved by many of the posters that were being showcased. One poster from 1980 said, "Women constitute 1/2 the world's population, perform 2/3 of the world's work hours, receive 1/10 of the world's income, and own less than 1/100 of the world's property". I am interested in looking at a current UN report to see how those statistics have changed twenty-six years later.

One thing that impressed me about the exhibit was the interactive wall displays. Questions were posted such as "What is you favorite leisure activity?" and "What do you think makes a woman beautiful?" Blank note cards, pencils, and push pins were provided so that visitors could become part of the display and post their answers. I really enjoyed reading other women's responses and then looking back and seeing mine up on the wall before I left.

St. Paul's Cathedral Library

Today we were fortunate enough to have a tour of St. Paul's Cathedral Library. In order to get to the library itself, we had to climb a massive, suspended spiral staircase. It reminded me a little of the spiral staircase in the Vatican in Rome. St.Paul's Cathedral was built by Christopher Wren in the 17th century. Before he built the cathedral he made a wooden model that needed to be approved by the church before building could commence. We had the opportunity to see the Great Model, which is housed in an upstairs room of the Cathedral. I think it is interesting that the original model that he designed was rejected because it looked "too Catholic".

As we entered the room that has been the library for the past 300 years, my eyes immediately were drawn to the beautiful white vaulted ceiling. The librarian remarked that he thought the ceiling's design was fitting for a library because it 'allowed your thoughts to soar.' One of the carvings on the wall was of a skull with two books, wheat, and grapes perhaps implying that this is a room devoted to learning in support of the church. Most of the fittings in the room are from the 19th century when the library was redone. The librarian mentioned that most of the original library collection was lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666. After the fire, the main concern was how to build up library collections again as quickly as possible. A bishop donated 2000 books that survived the fire and other collections from senior clergy were brought in so that three libraries of duplicates were built right away.
Today the library is open to anyone who can make good use of it. The librarian speaks with potential users to determine why they need to do research here and what they will need to be looking at. Readers are not allowed to handle more than three documents at a time. The librarian and conservation staff try their best to balance the tasks of protecting their collection and providing access to it for the public.