Tag Archives: resources

Feminist Library Workshop: Skillful Volunteering

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.

A quick history
A quick history

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:

  1. A new space designed and constructed by women.
  2. Seeing the Library accepted as a vital part of society and integrated into the community, being used by groups, like primary schools.
  3. 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 volunteer@feministlibrary.co.uk 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.


The BFI Southbank: In Glorious Technicolor

It’s Hallowe’en Eve and I am waddling along the South Bank in killer heels. With all the finesse of a giraffe, I weave through teenage witches, ghouls and monsters. All laughing, cajoling and hyper, they congregate around the London Eye like a gathering of horror movie nightmares.

I’m on a quest tonight to delve deep into the audiovisual Aladdin’s cave that is the BFI Southbank, now in its seventieth year as a registered charity.

As a former university librarian and film undergraduate, I feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store, excited at delving into the British Film Institute’s archives, gorging on the visual feast of stills, posters, scripts and plasma screens. Gothic cinema, film noir, documentaries. I love them all.

The BFI’s “Mediatheque” houses a national archive of 2,500 film and television titles from 1895 to the present day. I am told by Monica, Mediatheque’s visitor experience officer, that I can spend two hours free every day with headphones in a slick grey booth choosing titles from a database on my very own private screen. Great, I think, as I scroll down wide-eyed at the roll-call of cult classics, documentaries and comedies. I can rewind, fast-forward or pause frames. If only real life were that simple!

I am here to seek inspiration, away from the small print of dusty television books piled up around dog-eared, illegible university notes. Essay number two for Television: History and Future is looming large. This entails contrasting and comparing fictional and real families through reality TV and soap land. I need to stop thinking about pantomime baddie JR Ewing and his flamboyant stetson hats, and start focusing on material from a wider network of televisual styles.

I get distracted by the heavy stream of titles online; alternating between being teary-eyed with smudged mascara at David Lynch’s black and white cult classic The Elephant Man, then guffawing loudly (much to the disgust and heavy eye-rolling of my fellow film and media aficionados) at the deliciously un-PC Kenny Everett Christmas Show, “all done in the best possible taste!”. I am not immune to a bit of childhood nostalgia, marvelling at the short animation Mr Benn – a single guy about town who has enough time away from work to go into a magical fancy-dress shop, indulging in his own fantasy world. It’s an idea I can warm to away from early museum shifts and screaming schoolchildren in South Kensington.

Moving through the heavy glass door to the BFI Reuben Library, I am confronted with an enormous archive of film and media resources.  It has a collection of two million images, complete with scanning facilities, and a variety of databases with stills, designs and special collections on famous producers. The library is lined from ceiling to floor with encyclopaedias, directories, picture books and DVDs, with two private study areas to work on research. The only personal disadvantage as a Monday night Birkbeckette is the closure of the library on that day.

Annual membership of the BFI is £45 which includes free member-only screenings and priority bookings for all films, events and festivals. Flashing my Birkbeck ID to the box office staff, I receive my discount, paying only £7 to see Nosferatu in the studio, as opposed to the standard price of £11. Succumbing in darkness to the creepiness of the vampire, against the loud soundtrack, I know that I have got my fright for the night.

It has been worth suffering aching limbs and sore eyes, the discomfort softened by a large rosé at the  Anterim bar with soothing jazz vibrations permeating the air. All in all, this vibrant, clean and modern institution is a must for film lovers with friendly, helpful staff and sumptuous views of the South Bank.