A Visit to the Glasgow Women’s Library Archives

Emily Ryder at the Glasgow Women's Library Archives

What brought us to the Glasgow Women’s Library archives

We at Translating Feminism are big fans of the Glasgow Women’s Library. It’s a unique place, the only facility of its kind in the UK to house an events space and lending library as well as an extensive archive. Alessia and I took a visit to the Glasgow Women’s Library archives and spent a fruitful afternoon digging around in the boxes that hold their LGBT Historical collections.

The story started last summer. The Glasgow Women’s Library needed a native speaker to help them catalogue some Italian materials. Alessia volunteered. She spent a few hours organising bundles of magazines and leaflets published by Italian feminist groups from the 1960s and 1970s. Alessia didn’t get a chance to read much, just enough to let the archivist catalogue the material. But she saw enough to give her the sense that a rich collection remained unexplored.

This March, Alessia and I took a trip back to the library to investigate more. We could have spent all day rummaging around in their collections. (The catalogues really are that good.) We found the boxes that Alessia had sorted last summer and settled ourselves in. Mostly, we looked at copies of a magazine produced by the Italian lesbian collective Coordinamento Lesbiche Italiane (CLI).

What we found

‘Magazine’ is too formal a word to describe these hand-stapled, typewritten documents. Today we would call them ‘zines‘, to convey the low production values of DIY publishing. Many feminist groups of the period—not just in Italy, but around the world—self-published as a way to disseminate information outside traditional (monied) channels. While the DIY aesthetic certainly reflects the CLI’s modest funding, it also expresses the urgency of their message. Women’s groups like CLI prioritized social justice over glossy pages and colour photographs.

The articles in the CLI magazines covered a huge range of topics. The editors kept their readers up to speed on the latest news from the various women’s bookshops, libraries, and social spaces around Italy. They also collected information about women’s movements around the world, reviewing new books and giving details of protests, talks, and conferences taking place throughout Europe.

These magazines also served as a 1970s prototype for social media. We found everything from adverts from women who had recently moved house and were seeking new likeminded friends to information about lesbian-friendly holidays in Italy and around the world.

What we learned

Working in archives like this gives a snapshot of a specific time and place in history. Using these magazines to try to understand something of the lives of these women—both the writers and their readership—provides a level of insight that we would otherwise struggle to obtain.

Nowadays, much of the material content produced during the ‘second wave’ is digitised (the British Library recently made the whole archive of Spare Rib available online, for example). Without question, online facsimiles provide researchers and students invaluable opportunities for study. But it’s magic to hold one of these pamphlets in your hands. For a brief moment, you stand in the shoes of our foresisters, planning a camping holiday or protest march, connected to vast network.

Publications of the CLI

What’s next

At the upcoming Translating Feminism workshop The Materiality of Feminist Texts and Translations: Economy, Production, and Text (Universität Bern), we will delve deeper into the magic of materiality. The workshop will explore the materiality of feminist texts, with a special focus on translation.

Instead of studying feminism as a given system of ideas, regardless of the context of its production and reception, we will look at the variety of material supportive of women-centred ideas, ranging from pamphlets to self-published pirated editions and printed books, as well as the literary activities by which they are produced and transmitted.

Oh, and PS, Alessia and I have a plan afoot with the Glasgow Women’s Library archives. We want to put together an event highlighting the CLI pamphlets so we can share a little of their material brilliance with the community. Watch this space for details.


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