THERE are 20,000 books on the shelves of Glasgow Women’s Library. But the story of how the library has grown and prospered ranks as inspiring as any of the tales trapped between hard covers.

Its magnificent building in Bridgeton reeks pleasantly of the dampness of books but there is more than a whiff of wonder and achievement in the 25 years of the GWL’s existence.

It is a narrative of personal and communal growth that is, frankly, life-enhancing. “One of our literature learners – we have a lot of women who are developing their confidence in reading and writing – recently delivered a monologue inspired by the Belvidere Fever Hospital,” says Adele Patrick, lifelong learning and creative development manager, who has been with the GWL since it began in 1991 in a shop in Garnethill.

She adds: “The literature learner was part of a group of 20 women researching Belvidere. And to see one of our learners speaking in front of 60 people, talking with published writers, reading her story out, is brilliant.”

This is the essence of the project. “This place is all about saying: ‘It doesn’t matter what your background is, doesn’t matter what your history is, you can be anything you want to be. You will come across things in here that will make you feel like you could be First Minister, you could be a filmmaker, you could be anything’.”

She adds: “It is not about here’s the books, make of them what you will. It’s very much placing things into the hands of women so they can have the very highest aspirations.”

So what precisely is Glasgow Women’s Library?

“It is still quite an anomalous thing. It’s a bit of misnomer. We are not just in Glasgow now. We are all over the nation. We are not just for women and we are not just a library,” says Patrick. The birth story comes from an appetite for women to have a space where they could learn and grow.

“It quickly became a crucible where women could have their creative juices and cultural work fostered, encouraged and developed. It is about creating a space – and there wasn’t really one in Scotland – where you would be absolutely surrounded by stories for and about women.”

The physical journey from Garnethill to the Mitchell Library and now to Bridgeton has been accompanied by a growth in a sense of purpose and in materials.

“Every book in here has been donated,” says Patrick, her arm gesturing towards and impressive array of shelves. “We have never had a budget for books. They are free to borrow but hardly anything goes missing. There seems to be a recognition that these books meant something to the previous owner and that should be honoured.”

It is not just books that are donated. Patrick, a former student and teacher at Glasgow School of Art, guides me through the building, showing knitting patterns, women’s rights posters, early anti-nuclear material, cards and fascinating shards of history that can come in the shape of a nurse’s uniform from Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony to poems written by campaigners to their family.

It is an extraordinary, eclectic mix but it all speaks to the GWL’s fascination with what is possible for all women. “The aspirations from the outside are not great for working-class women or BAME women, or for older women. There seems to be the attitude of why would we ask them to do anything other than being in the home?” says Patrick.

“But everybody should have the same sense that we are only here once so we should ask ourselves what can we do, what can we experience? You can’t second guess what people will enjoy doing,” she says.

“We can say here’s the stuff, here’s the information, here is a facility, so go do it. This is space where people do not have to come in with a particular label. You can walk in and find that journey of learning.”

A glance at the summer programme reinforces that assertion. The archive is opening up to display anti-nuclear movement material and feminist responses to violence against women. There are conversations on Belvidere Hospital and on architecture. There is the opportunity to learn Palestinian embroidery, or to ride a bike, or to take in history of the city on a series of walks or to learn to write creatively.

There is a “jigsaw” of funders for the GWL from Creative Scotland through Glasgow City Council to trusts and personal donations. Its lifeblood, though, is to remain relevant to the community it serves.

“This is no longer a fragile grassroots operation that could be accused of having had its time. This is meaningful. We do have a role to play in Scotland. This library has materials that are the best of their kind in Scotland,” says Patrick.

Patrick is proud of the work that has gone in to make GWL an accredited museum, but adds: “We have gone the opposite way to many museums with our priority of widening access. There is a missing link in what women have done to create culture and we are trying to bridge that.

“We are learning all the time. We want to help women to grow in their own way. The question is how can we make the library meaningful to people coming in the door? Some of them may never have been in a museum.”

Her rallying call is to celebrate women throughout Scotland, in every area of life. “We have so many heroines who go unrecognised,” she says.

But Patrick knows that the GWL is helping to address that not only through its exhibitions and programmes but also in its ability to connect directly with the woman whose heroic act is to enter a library for the first time, to improve her reading and then stand up to address a crowd.

“Every day you see women achieving remarkable things,” she says.

This, in essence, is the most profound story of the library.



Favourite pastime: I am a football fan. I am going to five games at Manchester United this season. And I love the Scottish women’s team. I am also a runner and I have done a marathon for the library.

Favourite book: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch (above) and Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. I have loved that since I have been in Scotland.

Inspiration: When I was young, I met Sam Ainsley, an amazing woman artist doing incredible work. She was a mentor who encouraged me to teach. It’s cheesy, but all my colleagues here too.

Favourite places: Mull and Tiree but I am deeply sentimental about Glasgow. It has everything a city should have.

One statue for one woman in Glasgow: That’s tricky. There are so many women who deserve to be honoured. But Maude Sulter has slipped under the radar. She was probably one of the most significant woman in the black women’s movement as a writer, poet and artist. She was proud of being a Glaswegian.