Collecting voices in The Time of Coronavirus.

Over the last few months Gender studies placement student Louise Sidey has been collecting oral accounts from some of the staff and volunteers at GWL as part of the exhibit, Collecting in The Time of Corona Virus.

I set out to record an oral history of staff and volunteers at the women’s library because collecting women’s accounts of coronavirus is critical and there is an endless number of perspectives from the pandemic for us to retrieve and represent. I had the chance to document eight of these perspectives in total from group of willing and welcoming individuals that work at the library. We chatted about life, from our respective homes via zoom, the latest lockdown and, how the pandemic has affected them both professionally and personally. Importantly I wanted to bring these voices to you by sharing our conversations through text and video clips. These interviews and my placement stand as evidence of how the Glasgow Women’s Library has continued to adapt, against the backdrop of ever more digital landscape we find ourselves in today, a year into the pandemic.

While the doors of the library have been closed, apart from a short reopening at the end of last year, the staff and volunteers of the women’s library have not stopped. The people behind this Glasgow institution have been busily but separately working, meeting, creating, and sharing ideas despite being unable to be together physically. This project has helped capture the unusual duality of this time which Becca Lewis captured when she explained:

“I think that was quite a shock, that we were going through these collective difficulties together but so separately.”

Through our conversations, I came to realise how crucial the library’s physical building is and how its’ function goes beyond being a site of knowledge production and learning. I came to see that the space is simultaneously a site emotional support and a place of sharing, of both ideas and biscuits, for these individuals. Caroline Gausden spoke of the serendipity of the space and the joy that comes from unexpected conversations that arise from simply being in the space:

Caroline Gausden speaks about the shared emotional space that the library creates.

Similarly, Lauren Kelly meditated on missing the atmosphere of the building and the buzz of being around other people:

“Yeah all the little things that you kind of didn’t realize make up the library experience I even miss, and I never thought I would, I even miss sitting on the mezzanine whilst an event is going on downstairs in the event space. And hearing people talk in the background. It’s not I used to hate that it’s just that I used to be like, oh I’ll put headphones on to concentrate and like block out any noise if there was a conference or whatever. And now I’m like I’d love for there to be a conference…”

While volunteer, Catherine Mackie explained the importance of the building to her weekly routine:

“I just think that the biggest challenge well is obviously they not been able to go there because, also it gives a shape to the week, you know it was the one thing that I knew I was doing.”

So, while most of the library’s staff and volunteers have been separated from the library Becca Lewis, the facilities manager, has been holding the fort. Here she speaks of her time maintaining and managing the building while it has been largely vacant, and how this has changed her relationship with the space:

Becca Lewis explains how her relationship with the GWL building has changed during lockdown.

However, I have seen the library also encourages learning beyond the physical building. As Ren Clark, Volunteering Programme Assistant, explained how working with the library led her to reconceptualise her meaning of feminism and motivated her to pursue a Masters in Gender Studies.

Ren Clark discusses their journey with the Glasgow Women’s Library and studying for a Masters in Gender studies.

While Dorothy Sichi, ALN tutor, and I discussed how the pandemic has opened the possibilities of digital learning, and expanding the GWL audience through online spaces:

Dorothy Sichi speaks about how GWL has shifted online and what she misses most about the library.

Also, while there are many obvious drawbacks from working from home, I asked staff to think things they have enjoyed during this time. Doreen and I discussed the joys of crafting both at home “without a purpose” and within the Library at Women Making It. Doreen explained her role as a volunteer in this group:

‘…Because the women, are often, they want to be creative but they aren’t creative on their own because they have no time because of kids and things. But often, we are looking to tell them what to do and I’m always trying to encourage them to actually just try something.’

So with lockdown set to ease, spring emerging, and a feeling of hope in the air I asked Gabrielle Macbeth, Volunteer Coordinator, what she was most looking forward to about the library reopening, which we now have a date for 4th May! Hooray!

Gabrielle Macbeth reveals what she is looking forward to about the library reopening.

So, I imagine many of you will similarly feel that your social lives have been streamlined to the people in your immediate ‘bubble’ this last year. Indeed, the pandemic has pared back my everyday interactions and lockdown, as we are all very aware by now, has made it pretty much impossible to meet anyone new. Truthfully, I have really struggled with the lack of people, the spontaneity of a casual conversation in work or university and connection that comes with living life out with a pandemic. It has gone against my very nature as a sociable person.

I discussed this feeling with Lauren Kelly, who succinctly captured this sensation:

“…I was reading an article that was describing a lot of the things that we miss that we maybe aren’t aware of are all those little moments with random members of the public, that you would have like you’d feel more comfortable and able to have maybe chatting on a bus or like bumping into someone in a shop and then like, just little shared moments of bonding that we maybe have less of…or fewer.”

My placement with GWL and process of collecting these oral histories has been an unexpected tonic to the absence of these everyday interactions and has allowed me to meet, chat, reflect, and laugh with the staff and volunteers at GWL. So, while I set out to do this project with the intent of preserving the immediate experiences of these individuals in lockdown, I found that I also benefited from the process and relished the connection and conversation that oral history engenders. After all, as Linda Shopes points out, ‘oral history is, at its heart, a dialogue’[1] and as I discovered the staff and volunteers at the Glasgow Women’s Library have a lot to say.

I would like to say a special thank you to my interviewees: Dorothy Sichi, Doreen, Ren Clark, Lauren Kelly, Catherine Mackie, Gabrielle Macbeth, Caroline Gausden and Becca Lewis for lending me their time and demonstrating how oral history can help to create connections even in our relative lockdown isolations.


[1] Linda Shopes, ‘What is oral history?’ History Matters: The U.S. Survey on the Web. Available at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral/oral.pdf (Accessed March 2021), p.3

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Collecting voices in The Time of Coronavirus.

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