Volunteering is a great way to gain skills, get a feel for a field, and to try new things. After graduating, I was looking for a volunteering role to take on while I job-searched. If an organisation didn’t have information about volunteering on their website, I shot them an email anyways. I was invited to join in my role of choice for Feminist Library. I finally made it out to the Volunteers Workshop: a 6-hour day held in the Mayday Rooms and facilitated by a volunteer from Seeds for Change. I’m going to take this opportunity to say the facilitator from Seeds for Change was indispensable; I highly recommend contacting them if you foresee difficult discussions in your group meeting or activity.
The day began in a friendly, feminist way: a group of self-identified women chatting over tea, coffee, and homemade bread from one of the volunteer’s partners. We soon gathered, sitting on chairs in a circle, to begin the work. A few attendees, myself included, were fresh to the Feminist Library, but I don’t think we were alone in not knowing what to expect.
First, to ground the discussion: a history of the Feminist Library and it’s bumpy route to where it is today. It opened in 1975 as The Women’s Resource and Research Centre, breaking off from the Fawcett Library, and was renamed “The Feminist Library” in 1983. The Library moved to its current location (5 Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth, SE1 7XW) in 1986 because the collection was growing faster than the previous locations could handle. It nearly shutdown from 2004-2009 because of financial difficulties. The library has always had trouble getting funded: “Save the Library” has been a common theme calling for fundraising since it opened.
Today it is used for much more than just ordinary library functions. It’s used as a space for all sorts of feminist events – research, community projects, and activism – like comic-writing workshops and craft fairs.
After learning the history, the next task was to craft a vision for the future of the Library. It was amazing to see how in-tune everyone’s vision was. The common themes included:
- A new space designed and constructed by women.
- Seeing the Library accepted as a vital part of society and integrated into the community, being used by groups, like primary schools.
- Using the Library as a space to show a range of feminist art, including holding artists in residency, and promote the creation and learning of arts and crafts.
The Library already does some of the work of point 3, exhibiting art and holding skill-learning workshops, but there was a desire to expand this in frequency, intensity, and range.
Many issues the Library faces are similar to other radical organisation on the fringes of society: lack of funding, high turnover and burnout rate for volunteers, and strongly divided opinions on certain issues, which we come to next. Two of the biggest issues are the involvement of non-woman-identified people (men, genderqueer, et al.) and having paid work roles in the organisation. These topics were too big for the present meeting of selected volunteers, so it was decided there would be an open public meeting dedicated to each. It was hard for some to see these topics tabled yet again, but to be fair, and make them accessible to all who wanted to take part, they had to be.
I found it very useful to see how the facilitator steered the conversation to keep it focused on our priorities, when it could easily have veered into a discussion that would have been neither fruitful nor appropriate. She acknowledged the needs of the group, and stated what she thought would be most productive without being authoritarian.
Another useful process came next: We made an organisational outline of the Library, discussed the function of each group within the Library and their interaction with each other. This is a transferable skill that could be useful in thinking about re-structuring or setting up any organisation or company. We approached re-structuring from a feminist standpoint. This included aiming for a non-hierarchical structure that evenly distributes responsibility, as much as is practical, is transparent, and holds everyone accountable.
By the end of the day, you could feel a weight in the room. We had done a lot of work, and saw how much we still had ahead of us. The day was both inspiring and exhausting.
The Feminist Library is a place you can learn a lot through volunteering because it requires you to take your passion and commit to working for change. If you’re interested in volunteering, it is best for the Library if you can commit to be with the library over a long period. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your interest. It is a unique space and cultural icon in London that everyone should visit.
The Feminist Library is open Tuesday 6-9 pm, Wednesday 5-9pm, Thursday 6-9pm and Saturday 12-5pm for the Feminist Library Bookshop.