FLA presentations at Feminism in London 2014 conference

Jalna Hanmer, Feminist Archive North

As women why is it relevant to know the past? Why is knowing the current moment not enough? Early in the wave of feminism that began in 1969 women began to understand how the loss of knowledge of earlier women’s struggles and demands is a major way of securing the social and personal subordination of women. Not for nothing is standard history about the thoughts and exploits of men. People without a past remain the onlookers in the history of the socially dominant and, at best, honorary members of the privileged caste, group or class. It is not an accident that women did and do not know their past. People without a past do not have a future.
These ideas led to women collecting, preserving and making available to other women a map, a guide, for future generations of women so that women who did not share a particular moment in time may have access to it. Early materials turned out on duplicators, often indistinct or blurred, and circulated to small numbers through women-only publications, were major sources of women’s concerns and activism and remain so for the future. Because political activists utilised multi-media, there are songs, photographs, posters, films, banners, t-shirts, badges as well as a multiplicity of forms of written work.
In the future these multi-media source data will be needed for women to be able to assess the development of ideas, actions and times in which we lived and live. To keep alive knowledge of women’s struggles with each other and with men; their efforts to understand and organise against oppression and exploitation means passing on our herstory from woman to woman, from mother to daughter, through the generations. There are reoccurring patterns of high and low mobilisation of women to resist and transform their social situations in countries around the world. If we had full access to this knowledge, our heritage, think how empowered our social and collective identity would be.
The libraries and archives collecting information on women will enable women to discover, if it is not possible to maintain conscious continuity, of a feminist past. With few exceptions these libraries and archives are poorly funded or unfunded and depend upon the commitment of women to donate to, maintain and to use them. Libraries and archives now exist in different regions of the U.K. making accessibility easier. But there is no guarantee for the future. This depends upon women’s vigilance, determination and understanding of their relevance to the present and the future.
To secure this future depends on us to leave as complete an account as possible so that women who come later may make their own judgements, building on our past and present work and achievements just as we have built on those of women who came before us. Taking ourselves seriously is to recognise and value a diverse heritage of our own making and to act to preserve it for future generations of women. This is the task women’s libraries and archives have set themselves to achieve. We hope you will look at our websites, contact us for information, come to see the collections, donate material and offer to help to maintain and develop current libraries and archives. We all have a contribution to make.

Zaimal Azad, Nottingham Women’s Centre

You’ve already heard about why it is so important to preserve our history and how this in itself is a political act in a world where women and women’s work is constantly erased. I am going to carry on from there and talk about FLA – the umbrella under which this workshop is being delivered, and what role this network has to play in protecting the feminism of the past and ensuring its continuity.

The story of FLA begins about a year ago from a conversation between some of us at an event where we got talking about the many practicalities, and the joys and frustrations of running feminist libraries and archives. As different as our libraries are – from proper buildings and large collections like Glasgow and London to university affiliated special collections like FAN and FAS, to our small but very special library at Nottingham Women’s Centre – they also have many many things in common. And the most important thing they have in common is that they all exist and survive due to sheer passion and force of will. Most of these feminist and women’s libraries and archives have no funding, hardly (if any) staff and very little resources. They exist because of the love, care and dedication of the women who created them, the women who run them, and the women who use them. And just by existing, they make a political statement.

It is this shared love and passion which is the basis of FLA.

We met for an initial gathering of feminist libraries and archives in Nottingham in February of this year – it was meant to be a weekend of knowledge sharing and discussion, of learning from each other and celebrating what we do. It was at this weekend that we realised exactly how important it is that we come together – important for our individual libraries and archives, important for ourselves as custodians of these and important for the feminist movement as a whole.

And so – FLA was created! It was created because together we are so much stronger as we realised over that weekend in February and then more recently last month when we had visitors from as far away as Japan who shared some amazing stories with us. It was things like being in a room full of people who understood exactly why the Dewey Decimal System doesn’t work for feminist libraries (it’s the patriarchy, if you are wondering!), people who were as excited as you about cataloguing systems and classification instead of giving you odd looks. Along with these more practical aspects of our collections, it was also deeper discussions about the diversity of our collections, about who is represented when we talk about our history, about the relationships between our libraries and local activism.

We came together and talked about all this and more and realised that there is so much to be gained from doing this more often, communicating more regularly, and working more closely.

There are many different projects dotted around the country, big and small, archiving and preserving feminist history. There are also many that have had to close down because of the lack of support. But how many people know about them? How many of you have been to a feminist library or archive? Have you visited the WLMA website? Spent an evening getting lost in the treasures of the feminist library here in London?

As with all other campaigns at the moment, we need to join the dots and create a bigger picture. And this is why there is such an urgent need for FLA. This network will give a platform to feminist and women centric libraries, archives and collections. It will act as a resource and improve access to our projects – an online directory of libraries and archives where you can find one near you. It will provide a hub for those of us who work within these or in related fields – a place for us to come together and support each other specially when the going gets tough. It has already done so over the past year. And perhaps most importantly, it will enable us to fight much harder and more effectively to save them.

Our libraries and archives hold the victories, the struggles, the mistakes of our past and the keys to our future. They are places of knowledge, of rebellion and of self discovery. They help validate our feminism, they provide inspiration, they remind us of what has been achieved and also of how far we still have to go. This is why I ask that you support FLA. This network is for feminist and women’s libraries all over the country (and beyond) and all those interested in them. It is also for those libraries and archives which may not necessarily be feminist or women focused but have dimensions of these – for example the Black Cultural Archive or anarchist libraries. It is for everyone who has an interest in preserving women’s and feminist history, whether affiliated with a library and archive or not. Anyone can get involved and all kind of support counts. So what can you do?

Check out our website. Spread the word about us and tell the people you know. Join our mailing list. Come to our events. And most importantly – visit (or start!) a feminist/women’s library or archive near you. Engage with it. Bring your feminist events and campaigns into these spaces or take elements of these spaces to your events and campaigns. Get in touch with us – we are waiting to be discovered. Visiting a feminist library changed my life and took it into a completely different direction. It might do the same for you.