For a long time, visitors to the UK's largest collection of books by and about women had to burrow into a dingy basement in London's East End. There they would approach the Fawcett Collection's librarian and, perhaps, ask to see one of the earliest texts on women's rights, published in 1652; one of the first English cookbooks (The Queen-Like Closet or Rich Cabinet by Hannah Wolley, published in 1677); or the diary of an intrepid woman traveller of the early 19th century.
From this month, far more visitors will find their trip to what is now the Women's Library inspirational and memorable. In lavish new premises almost next door to the dreaded basement, the collection (60,000 printed items plus banners, ephemera and other exhibits) will be freely open to school parties, local residents and community groups as well as international scholars.
In one of the most beautiful conversions of recent years, the library has been housed in an ex-wash house next to its parent, London Guildhall University (which has administered it since 1977). There is now space for school activities, lectures, and 40 readers at a time, as well as a caf, a performance space and exhibition gallery.
Resplendent in varnished brick, American oak, York stone, copper and brushed steel, the new facilities will evoke after their opening next week the wonder and sense of transformation which the original 1846 wash house (only the second in Britain) must have brought to the neighbourhood.
Library director Antonia Byatt says: "It's exciting to be here, between the university, the city and the East End, one of the few university research libraries completely open to the public." Jo Green, education officer, says: "Anyone can join the library. All they have to do is bring some identification and leave a deposit for their card." Inset days, school visits and activities, performances and public lectures (one forthcoming talk is by Marguerite Patten on 100 years of cookbooks) will now be possible, in purpose-built spaces; Jo Green is eager to meet schools' needs.
- Library open Tuesday-Saturday (times vary, see website); exhibition Monday-Saturday until July 13. For education bookings and to discuss needs, call Jo Green on 020 7320 3504. The Women's Library, Old Castle Street, London E1 7NT, tel: 020 7320 2222; fax 020 7320 2333; website www.thewomenslibrary.ac.uk
A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine