The Women's Library
The rather grim surroundings of Old Castle Street, Whitechapel, conceal a thoroughly modern library building entered through the preserved façade of a 19th century public wash house. Inside everything is new and brightly high-tech, though the atmosphere remains peaceful and traditional. Despite its off-putting name this free reference library is open to all - men as well as women are welcome to use what it claims is the UK's largest collection devoted to women's history.
The library has been through several incarnations. Starting in 1926 as The Women's Service Library, it became The Fawcett Library and is now The Women's Library (and part of London Metropolitan University's libraries). As well as books and periodicals it is home to some splendid archives, including that of the National Federation of Womens' Institutes. As you would expect, the suffrage movement, education and social attitudes are well covered but there is much more.
Books published after about 1920 are on open shelves tempting you to enjoyable browsing. Here, in the large collection of biographies, where Charlotte Corday jostles Barbara Castle, we came across the fascinating autobiography of a W.W.II Land Girl. As a whole, this section leaves you feeling that if a woman's story was ever published, you can find it in this library. Staff will fetch pre-1920 material and archives from the vaults where they are stored.
Like most collections, material is being acquired more quickly than the cataloguers can work so not everything is immediately available. A recent addition to the library's splendid archives is that of the National Federation of Womens' Institutes, which is still being catalogued but which should be available sometime in 2004. Do telephone to ask about access to new acquisitions.
The desks have power points for laptop computers.
Visiting the library
After you have completed a simple form and produced proof of identity the staff at a ground floor reception desk will issue a reader entry card to open the reading room door. At the moment (January 2004) your proof of identity will be held until you return the entry card, but this system might change so that you will leave a small cash deposit instead. The card opens the door of the second floor reading room which you reach by lift, or by stairs illuminated in a dramatic modern style (or a spotty irritating one, depending on your taste).
You will also be given a leaflet setting out the library's conditions of use where the copyright section seems rather severe; the rules go way beyond anything we have seen before.
Finding and ordering what you want
Most of the stock is listed on a computerised catalogue available both at terminals in the reading room and on the Internet (Web address below). However, some material, including older periodicals, press cuttings and ephemera, is still listed in catalogues on paper. Ask the staff about these.
Material from the vaults will be fetched by staff after you have completed a request form, usually arriving within an hour. However, just occasionally, some orders take 24 hours, so it might be worth finding what you want on the Internet catalogue and asking for it by telephone before visiting the library.
Café, Exhibition Hall and Seminar Room
A café on the first floor, in the same bright style as the rest of the building, serves "fair trade" tea and coffee as well as snacks. It is open 11am to 4pm Monday to Friday and on Saturdays too if there is an exhibition.
Exhibitions are held three times a year, usually with supporting events, talks, seminars, etc. From 12 February to 1 May 2004 the exhibition is Office Politics: Women in the workplace 1860-2004. The summer 2004 exhibition will look at Beauty Queen contests.
You can visit the café and exhibitions without registering for reading room pass.
The library's website (address below) gives information on what the library holds and the exhibitions. You might also be interested in an article at www.atalink.co.uk/ww/articles/article-103.phtml
A £15 annual subscription makes you a "Friend". As well as helping the library financially and giving an opportunity to be involved in its activities, this will provide you with various privileges, including invitations to previews and use of a Friends' Room.
Open: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday:
9.30am - 5.00pm
Thursday: 9.30am- 8.00pm
Saturday: 10.00am - 4.00pm
(Sunday and Monday, closed)
Telephone: 020 7320 2222
Address: Old Castle St, London E1 7NT (see map below)
Web catalogue: http://library.lgu.ac.uk/search~Sl
Underground: Aldgate East (Toynbee Hall exit)
Bus: 15, 25, 40, 42, 67, 78, 100, 115, 205, 254, 705
Disabled car parking The library has one parking space for holders of a disabled parking permit. This should be booked in advance.
Anne Bennet Alan Dove February 2004