Since 21st September 2016 we have been celebrating and reflecting, thinking and speaking about the development of Glasgow Women’s Library as we mark the organisation’s 25th birthday. This has been a significant process for me personally and professionally. I have had a chance to discuss and write about the process of how GWL was formed, has grown and been shaped and sustained in presentations and talks and through a series of three exhibitions during our anniversary year. I have had much thinking to do as I was there at the outset. The GWL team who have been blogging in our anniversary year so far have chosen to write about their all-important first impressions of the Library. I am writing from another perspective, as someone who was trying to help create a great impression for the first visitors on Day 1 on 21st September 1991 as well as someone who is as still keen to make people’s first impression of GWL as positive as it can be.
The GWL team have also been selecting favourite objects, this task, choosing one thing from thousands in the collection (most of which are freighted with meaning for me) has been difficult! What do you choose from the hundreds of thousands of items on offer? How do you make the call on selecting a suffragette’s umbrella or a signed Guerilla Girl poster? So, I have tried to think of a significant moment (the place and time when the library launched itself on the world) and an object that evokes that time but also connects to GWL today.
In some of the rare and precious images of the launch day and early months of GWL, in our tiny shopfront in Garnethill (now a stop on our Garnethill Heritage Walk) you can spot box files filled with journals, a bike propped up next to a tiny sink, a framed poster of a Women in Profile event, cassette tapes and postcards on display and in the background proudly mounted on the wall, a work that was given to us by the artist Sam Ainsley. This exuberant, beautiful print imbued the first GWL space with a sense of joy, optimism and vibrancy, creating a different quality to the space from mainstream or academic libraries. It signalled from the outset that creativity would be at the heart of GWL.
Amongst the objects, artefacts and images I love most in our collection are ones made by artists and this piece has travelled with us through all the subsequent homes, surviving as we did break ins and damp, the mould and the cold, and the four stressful flittings. Sam Ainsley was a hugely well regarded artist at this time and her generosity in giving us this work conveyed a great sense of belief in our endeavour by an important women artist. This was a risky, unfunded, maverick idea: a women’s library, in Glasgow, in 1991…The print has flying golden banners arching across the foreground emblazoned with the repeated refrain Passion, Imagination, Conscience. Did this mantra seep into the consciousness of us all, sitting in the cramped, humble premises in a fug of roll-up smoke? Reflecting on our long journey I can confirm that this is a call to action that we have, collectively and unequivocally responded to along the profoundly challenging pathway to becoming a Recognised Collection of National Significance.
Sam has continued to support our work, she is one of our stalwart champions and is amongst our celebrated cohort of 21 Revolutionaries. It was with enormous pride and pleasure that I could join in the celebrations as Sam was inducted as an Outstanding Women of Scotland at a ceremony hosted by GWL and Saltire Society this year, 21 years after she donated this work. Her demand for Passion, Imagination, Conscience remains as relevant as ever as we reflect on our past and look with hope to the future.