Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) celebrated its thirtieth birthday in 2021. Since its creation GWL has helped and enriched the lives of countless women and non-binary people. A two year study was carried out at the University of Strathclyde exploring this impact and the transformative power GWL has had over the years. This blog includes more information on the academics who carried out the research as well as an interview with them. The blog will also introduce the exhibition entitled Transformations on display in the library building until the 2nd of April 2022 which presents the findings of the study through artwork.
I have also included my own history with GWL and the impact it has had on my life.
Introducing the Study
The full name of the two year project is Transformative Servicescapes and Consumer Vulnerability. GWL was used as a case study to examine the “role of physical space in contributing towards positive transformative experiences” for those who use its resources.
A “transformative experience” could mean for some the “sense of being part of something significant”. For others it could mean that the moment they became involved with GWL and started using the space “represented a turning point, a fork in the road after which they perceived a change in their way of thinking and/or behaving that had a positive effect on their well-being”. I can say resolutely that both of these definitions of a “transformative experience” can apply to my experience with GWL.
The focus was primarily on how service spaces can transform the lives of those experiencing vulnerability. The definition of vulnerability used in the study recognises that it is “fluid and socially constructed rather that fixed and objective” and that it “incorporates individuals or groups suffering the effects of social, cultural and/or economic barriers.”
This research has highlighted five “key action points” that contribute to a “transformational environment”:
- Kindness as an organisational value:
The importance of kindness was found to be a key factor in the participants of the study having a transformative experience. Kindness can be shown in a variety of ways, including making people feel welcomed, offering them a cuppa and being made to feel like part of a community.
Another significant finding of the study was “thinking of inclusivity in as broad a way as possible”. GWL’s volunteers and service users are of all different ages and have diverse ethnic backgrounds, gender and sexual identities, and experiences of health conditions and disabilities. Participants in the study said they did not feel singled out but were treated as individuals. This feeling was achieved by designing the physical space of GWL “for everyone rather than just one group.”
- Design, Architecture and the Physical Space:
Another finding from the study showed that the physical space (the actual building of GWL) played a vital role in its success. “Having a space that is cared for in turn makes users feel that they are cared for and worthy of attention”. The physical space can “empower people and make them feel safe”. This is crucial for organisations working with those experiencing vulnerability. Participants in the study really appreciate that the building has been designed to be comfortable with features such as the big comfy armchairs.
- Embedding Creativity throughout the Organisation:
Having creativity throughout GWL has helped “generate ideas and encourage different ways of thinking and working.” GWL offers countless opportunities for people to express themselves through art. This can “help break down barriers, lead to meaningful conversations, and build relationships.”
- A Non-Hierarchical and Feminist Organisational Structure:
Last but certainly not least, a significant finding from the study showed that “breaking down traditional hierarchies and embracing a culture of trust” very much contributed to participants having a transformative experience. The fact that the GWL building is an open and shared space has promoted team-working and has softened the “boundaries between service providers and service users.” Everyone at GWL has “an equal voice” in meetings, allowing everyone to feel they can contribute, whether you are the newest volunteer or the most experienced staff member. This allows everyone to feel valued.
In this video the researchers present these findings, accompanied by the illustrations and riso prints displayed in the exhibition:
Methods Used in the Study
- 64 interviews with users, volunteers, staff, and people from associated networks and organisations;
- Material from two art-based risograph workshops on the theme of GWL and transformations;
- Historical analysis of GWL’s archives;
- Analysis of GWL website and social media analysis of Twitter, Facebook and other content to help understand the range and types of events and projects hosted in GWL;
- Participant observations in the GWL space and of events (due to Covid-19 these were largely online).
Meet the Researchers
Here are some biographies of the researchers who carried out the study.
Dr Juliette Wilson
Juliette’s research interests focus on the ways in which organisations and communities work together. Examples of previous research includes work on the ways in which community food initiatives address the issues of food poverty; how depleted communities can work together to co-create locally sustainable responses; and engaging young people in sustainable activities through the Every Tree Tells a Story project with Glasgow City Council. She has found working with Glasgow Women’s Library really inspiring, especially in seeing how the values of feminist leadership are truly borne out in the ways in which they work and partnership with others to transform the lives of the women who are part of their extended community. She is a board member of Dunbartonshire Young Enterprise and in her spare time likes walking and being with friends and family.
Professor Kathy Hamilton
Kathy is originally from Northern Ireland but moved to Glasgow in 2006 for a job at the University of Strathclyde. Her research area is broadly defined as ‘consumption, markets, and society,’ and she is most interested in projects relating to well-being. The Glasgow Women’s Library project builds on her prior work that explores how interaction with various commercial and community spaces can be therapeutic. For example, one project was based on the Adopt A Station scheme that enables individuals or groups to ‘adopt’ their local railway station in order to provide services or facility improvements that benefit the local community. Kathy enjoys creative research approaches and has recently worked on a project involving collaborative poetry. Outside of work, she likes to travel (pre-covid!), walking and dance classes.
Dr Holly Porteous
Carrying out research into an organisation like Glasgow Women’s Library was a bit of a dream job for Holly, combining many of her interests – including feminism, history and books! She first moved to Glasgow from rural Northumberland to study at Glasgow Uni almost twenty years ago. After completing a PhD on gender roles in post-Soviet Russia in 2014, she spent several years carrying out research into how migrants from former state socialist countries made themselves secure in pre-Brexit Scotland, before joining this project based at the University of Strathclyde. In her spare time, she is a trustee for a local Women’s Aid branch and also enjoys running, live music, and exploring nature with her young children.
Dr Sarah Edwards
Unfortunately Sarah was unavailable when I was writing this blog so we don’t have a bio for her. But she was an integral part of the study!
Here are a set of questions I asked the researchers about their study. The answers are in their own words.
- Why did you choose Glasgow Women’s Library as a case study?
We chose it as a case study because we felt it was quite a unique community space, given the range of different activities that go on there.
2. What makes GWL unique compared to other libraries?
We think the library is central to their identity, but it is also a conduit for so many other things. It represents their core values of sharing knowledge, empowering through reading and learning, sharing women’s stories and women’s histories and placing women’s history centrally. What is important about libraries in general is then that all of this is accessible to all regardless of income, background, or experiences.
3. Who can benefit from the findings of your research?
We hope that our project findings will be useful for many different groups and organisations – public, private, third sector, hybrid –essentially, anyone that works in a community context with diverse groups of people, or who wishes to improve their practice and make their own space more welcoming for different kinds of people.
We also hope that bringing together the case study of GWL’s particular expertise in creating a transformational space will come together with our research team’s expertise in looking at all kinds of different public and community spaces (e.g. gendered spaces, religious spaces, business spaces, spaces used by migrants) to produce more general recommendations for best practice that can be useful in a variety of contexts.
3. Had you worked together before this project?
Kathy, Juliette and Sarah have worked together on other projects and also within the same organisation. Holly has been a wonderful addition to the team. We think one reason we all work well together is because we all come from different areas of academic research and all have something unique to add to the project. One of the real benefits of the project has been learning from each other.
4. Why is it crucial to have kindness as an organisational value?
We found that kindness was the best way of describing and bringing together all of the little gestures that GWL do: things like offering a cup of tea or just allowing someone the space to talk seem like small gestures, but they were something that participants told us make a big difference to their lives. This was because for many women small kindnesses represented the beginning of a longer journey of positive transformation; a way of making people feel included that then became a first step on the ladder to increased self-esteem and confidence.
Significantly, kindness was not a one-way street: at GWL, there seemed to be a kind of circular economy of kindness where, for example, volunteers paid forward kindness shown to them, whether this was to newer volunteers, Library users, or GWL staff. This was a key part of creating the right atmosphere for transformative experiences to happen for many people we spoke to: a sense of give and take and fondness for the organisation and its people.
6. What is the significance of the physical space in creating a transformative experience for those involved with GWL?
The physical space is really important in creating a transformative experience. In line with previous research we found that making a space feel cared for was an important part of making people feel cared for and valued. Not only that, but it helped in creating a feeling of community around the caring, all users felt involved. GWL also has spaces with a multiplicity of uses and this is again enabling in letting people decide where and how they want to use spaces, be it a corner to curl up with a book or sharing stories and ideas around the big table or sitting up in the Mezzanine surrounded by artefacts from the archive and also able to view what is going on down below.
7. Did you gather more qualitative or quantitative data?
Our project was focused on exploring the transformative effect of space and our methods were focused on capturing this in as rich a way as possible, all with forms of qualitative data. This project drew on a multitude of data sources. The most informing were people’s own stories of their experiences with GWL through in depth interviews. These were with users, volunteers, staff, people who had worked with GWL in various ways and also wider stakeholders such as community councillors. We also used material from two creative workshops, historical analysis of GWL’s archives, analysis of GWL’s website and social media and participant observations.
8. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them when you were collecting data for the study?
The biggest challenge was starting a project focused on space in April 2020, when all public spaces had suddenly been closed due to Covid-19! As the first few months took place in that strange period where everybody was stuck at home, and no one really knew what to expect from the burgeoning pandemic, we spent some time gathering background information about GWL and building a solid contextual background based on events and media analysis. When it eventually became clear that interviews would have to begin in some fashion, we decided to begin interviews on Zoom.
In a way, having that distance from the space was helpful. During Covid-19, regular volunteers and staff had time to think about what they valued in the space, which added another dimension to the fieldwork. As somebody who had only visited GWL’s Landressy Street location once in the past, Holly could ask people to build a verbal and emotional map of the space for her in interviews: did they remember their first impressions of the building? What were their favourite areas? How did particular areas make them feel?
At the same time, we do regret that we weren’t able to spend more time just being in the Library and participating in its everyday work. However, the generosity shown by volunteers, staff, and others in sharing their experiences we felt has given us a really full perspective of how GWL operated prior to Covid-19: it’s nice that we can now see those same everyday practices come to life again as things begin to open up more.
9. Were any of the findings from your research surprising or unexpected?
We’ve learnt from qualitative research we’ve done in the past that nothing is really off the table! We didn’t really have preconceptions about what we would find. Saying that, those of us who were less familiar with GWL were surprised by how much was going on, and with how many different groups of people: it’s a genuinely multifaceted organisation.
The ‘Transformations’ Exhibition
Artist Jules Scheele created illustrations using quotations taken from interviews in the study. The artwork is colourful and creative and captures the feelings of those involved with GWL. Jules Scheele’s illustrations “help translate and bring a human touch to difficult concepts”. They also portray visually some of the key themes highlighted by the research.
You can find these on the welcome wall as you first enter the building.
Link to Jules Scheele’s website:
You will also find a collection of risograph prints (risos) both at the welcome wall and in the mezzanine level that were created by GWL staff, learners and volunteers during online workshops in autumn 2021.
Each print represents how GWL has been transformative for the people who made them. These prints effectively use bright colours and interesting patterns, symbols and words to express people’s positive experiences with and emotions about GWL. The risos were created with help from artist Helen de Main.
Come and see the exhibition! To do so, please feel free to pop into GWL before April the 2nd 2022. There is no need to book though the number of people allowed in each space will be limited.
A link to another blog if you would like to learn more about Helen de Main or risograph printing:
I would like to share my story with GWL. I can say with complete certainty that my life has changed for the better since joining as a volunteer. I grew up in London and moved to Glasgow at the age of 18 for university. Unfortunately I was unable to complete my undergraduate degree due to health issues.
Being unable to finish my studies was a major blow to my confidence which had already taken a battering due to being unwell. Before discovering GWL I was feeling a little directionless in life as I didn’t have a job and I also was no longer a student.
Funnily enough it was my mum all the way back in London who first found out about GWL! She sent me a link to their website and after a couple of minutes of reading about the library’s values and aims I was immediately intrigued and desperate to get involved.
I enquired about volunteering and soon a meeting was arranged with Gabrielle, the volunteer coordinator at GWL. My mum was up visiting me when I met with Gabrielle for the first time and from the moment we arrived we knew that this was a very special place. Everyone was so friendly and Gabrielle told me that I could start volunteering the following week!
That was four years ago. Since that day I have been able to try my hand at a variety of tasks, from minding the front desk to logging books donated to writing blogs such as this one. The blogs have given me the chance to hone skills I hadn’t used since my days studying, such as researching and writing.
I will even be attempting to give tours to visitors to the library, a challenge for me as I am very much not a fan of public speaking! But practicing the tours (along with everything else I’ve done with GWL) has given me such a huge confidence boost.
This is a very important study as it highlights the significant effect Glasgow Women’s Library has on the lives of those who are involved with it. As we celebrate thirty years of GWL it is important we look back at all the good it has achieved whilst also looking to the future. Other organisations can learn a lot from the model GWL has created.
Here’s to the next thirty years of transformative impact!
All quotations were taken from the following source as well as from the exhibition itself:
- Transformations at Glasgow Women’s Library – Summary Report, March 2022