Hello, I am Celine. As a student of Literature and Arts from Germany, I was delighted to have the chance of diving into the history of Glasgow Women’s Library. It is my pleasure to share with you in a series of twelve blog posts some of the highlights captured in past GWL Newsletters. I hope you enjoy reading about them as much as I did during my placement at this wonderful place and join in the celebration of the Library’s 30th Anniversary.
Have you ever been to Glasgow Women’s Library in person? If yes, did you ever have a closer look at the classification scheme in which the books are displayed? Maybe, you answered no to both the questions, in which case it is highly recommended that you pay a visit to the Library! If you answered yes, perhaps you noticed that the categories differ from the ones in other Libraries you have been to in the past. To this day, there are a lot of them, who use the in many ways outdated Dewey Decimal Classification system. Like other women’s libraries have done before, GWL decided many years ago to create its own feminist classification system to fit their collection and general values.
GWL’s own librarian, Wendy Kirk, arrived to this wonderful place in October 2005. Her welcoming was celebrated with a special introductory article in Issue 33 (2005) of the GWL Newsletter. Here, Wendy announced her goal to create a system for cataloguing and classifying the Library’s collection. At that point, GWL had been up and running for quite some years already and was organised in a ‘bookshop’ style layout. Visitors could find the books they were looking for organised by its main genre and the author’s name within that genre. Back then, this system worked well for everyone. Nevertheless, the Library and its collection were growing with time (and they still are!), which meant that it was in need of a classification system that did it justice.
With that goal set in mind, it was time to do some research. It is important to bear in mind that back then, there was only one computer available for staff members at the Library. They had to book a time slot for use, but still, endless browsing in front of the screen was not the usual way to go about it. So most of the inspiration for GWL’s own system came from looking at other classification schemes by sister organisations. Some of them were so kind as to send copies of their systems for inspiration. The Feminist Library in London as well as the Library ‘Stichwort’ in Austria were helpful in that regard. Another inspiration was the Akshara system, developed by a women’s organisation in India. Particular inspiration came from the Akshara system, developed by a women’s organisation in India. Leafing through a beautiful, printed copy of this system really helped to give a sense of the possibilities of creating a system tailored to the needs of GWL, its collection and its users
Some of the traditional schemes, like the previously mentioned Dewey Decimal, are seen as very problematic today. This particular one was developed by Melvin Dewey in 1876, which was an era of the concentration on Christianity, in addition to racism, sexism, as well as homophobia. For a very long time, LGBTQI topics were subcategorised in Abnormal Psychology, Perversion, Social problems and other categories, which no one should strive to uphold in a system. Eurocentricity and their gender bias make it among other aspects already mentioned not suitable for the collection Glasgow Women’s Library is proud to have.
Next to all the non-inclusive aspects of traditional schemes, stands the topic of accessibility. The smallest amount of people, who come and visit the Library, are trained librarians who know their way around complex classification systems. As an inclusive and safe space, it is important that everyone is able to find the book they are looking for, without searching and struggling with letters and numbers for hours. Simplicity and something that is straightforward were some of the key criteria here. The Library itself has a cosy and welcoming atmosphere, which the classification of the collection should not contrast with but complement. This lead to a system, where now letters function as a mark for the main categories and numbers make up the subcategories. If you want to read up on the suffragette movement in the 20th century, for example, you can find it under H7.1, with the H meaning History and the numbers representing the subcategories ‘20th century’ and ‘suffragette’. Our online catalogue as well as library staff are always happy to help you with your search for the right book. No matter if you are seeking literacy and numeracy support, you are doing research for your studies or just browsing through the bookshelves – the right book should be easy to find for you!
Readers of the Newsletter back then, could follow up on the process of creation in the column ‘Wendy Kirk’s Librarian Update’ in Issue 35 (2007) and Issue 36 (2008). This is when the classification of the Library’s collection began and the road to cataloguing for online access started. Today, everyone can browse through GWL’s collection on their website as we are adding more and more books to be made accessible online.
Being able to expand the system was another important aspect when creating it. Today, it is easy to alter the categories if certain classes grow and need more detailed class marks. Additionally, the European Women’s Thesaurus functions as a helping tool to keyword our catalogue records. This does not prevent us from adding our own keywords, though! The whole shows that the help and support of other equalities-led organisations and tools lead to a successful result, which allows us to benefit from the Library’s interesting and diverse collection today.