The oldest library in the modern world was opened by a woman, Fatima Al-Fihri. That was in Morocco over a thousand years ago. Now libraries are commonplace and accessible to all, but The Women’s Library in Newtown defines itself by a specific mission – empowering and celebrating the lives of women.
Many of these women were born in homelands both physically and culturally distant from the golden age of Morocco. Their stories may be different too – far from the wealth and social status needed to establish a non-essential activity such as collecting books for learning. But learning promotes power, and seeing women’s voices in print and reading stories written from women’s perspectives brings recognition of commonality and difference, no more so than in modern day Australia.
The Women’s Library began in 1991 when a dedicated group of women got together to discuss the need for a library that contained print and non-print material for and about women, with a focus on lesbian and feminist literature. Some of the founders were household names of the time: Caroline Jones, Clover Moore, Justice Elizabeth Evatt and Ann Deveson. It took them three years to find the premises, then they set out to collect 4000 books. They scattered bright red chests throughout Sydney for donations, and wrote to Australian authors and publishers asking them to donate. They got a good response.
As well as being a “safe space” for women to relax and read, the library has evolved into a meeting space for smaller groups promoting feminism and women’s causes. The Sydney Feminists group has screened free educational videos there; senior’s week events, lesbian open house, International Women’s Day events, comedy and music performances all benefitted the local and wider community.
The written word is the mainstay of any library, and in 2008 a series of “Storying our Lives” workshops was held, funded by the City of Sydney. Women were asked to think about what living in Sydney meant to them, or to tell in pictures a story about their lives. Out of this emerged a diverse range of art and a wide range of interesting conversations, and a book. Short story competitions, the creation and launch of the TWL Herstory book and bargain book sales keep learning and creativity at the Library’s forefront
The legacy of the founders is still going in 2019. Right now the Women Write Wiki project, funded by the NSW Writers Centre, aims to train a team of women to edit Wikipedia. Its purpose is to redress the gender imbalance in the representation of Australian and Pacific women writers. According to the website, the Wiki writers are
“raising our voices peacefully for gender equality, speaking out against hatred and bigotry, and volunteering in our communities. We do so in solidarity with our sisters all over the world.”
In fostering these projects and providing space for women to explore their place in the world, the Women’s Library is spreading Fatima Al-Fihri’s inspired vision for learning and empowerment into areas she could never have dreamed of.