Accessed from a discreet wooden door on one side of the Mitchell Library, this unassuming rectangular room is the place where secret histories are revealed and the past – the real past – comes to life. Books are stacked high on the shelves that line the room, while an array of vintage magazines detail subjects as diverse as housewives' chores or new-wave feminism.
On the walls of Glasgow Women's Library a selection of politically motivated artworks set the tone. "We want what men have got," one of them says in scrawled text. "It might not be a lot, but we want it just the same."
Established by volunteers in 1991, Glasgow Women's Library is an exceptional place. A lending library, a learning base and a historical resource that contains everything from Suffragette memorabilia to 1930s dress-making patterns, it is an archive about women's lives, both past and present.
This year it celebrates its 21st birthday – an impressive achievement for an organisation that started life in premises in the city's Garnethill. "It's really exciting that the library has managed to survive two decades, and not just survive but be growing," says Adele Patrick, its creative development manager.
To celebrate its coming of age the library, which is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Glasgow City Council among others, is bringing together a clutch of artists and writers. Twenty-one female artists and the same number of writers will produce a print or text inspired by items in the collection. The artwork, a series of prints, will go on display at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Sauchiehall Street, while the texts will be transformed into podcasts.
"We are being hugely over-ambitious with the idea of asking not just 21, but 42 people," adds Patrick. "Throughout the library's life we have had a lot of artists working with us. I think it's one of the peculiar aspects of our library life; we've always had artists around, impacting on the learning and the look of the library."
Staff approached artists and writers, many of whom had links to the library already. Almost all the women who were asked, including the Makar Liz Lochhead and 2011 Turner Prize nominated artist Karla Black, said yes. The project is being funded by Creative Scotland and Museums Galleries Scotland and each of the 42 women will be paid the same "modest fee". Patrick adds: "For us it's been a massive morale boost because it was all quite unexpected. For want of a better word it's just been love we've felt from these women."
Patrick, along with her staff, hopes the new works will raise the profile of the organisation and introduce more women to its services. She adds: "We're very good at making sure women's history is preserved and cherished and showcased, but we've not been so good at marking our own achievements.
"We're becoming more like an institution – but in a good way – and it is time for us to say, hey, a 21st birthday is a really significant birthday."
It is also hoped that this project, along with a series of other initiatives, will help towards making the library self-sufficient.
"Our aim is to become more financially independent and this will help," adds Patrick. "We started off in the early days being a voluntary organisation without a paid worker and now we've just recruited our 13th member of staff, so we're slowly growing."
The exhibition, named 21 Revolutions after one of the library's Suffragette artifacts, opens at the Intermedia Gallery at the CCA on September 22 and runs until October 13. It includes work from internationally renowned figures such as Claire Barclay and Lucy Skaer, as well as Scottish up-and-coming artists, and inspiration ranges from Suffragette memorabilia to badges and cookery books.
Glasgow artist Shauna McMullan, who created Travelling the Distance, the wall-mounted artwork of porcelain handwriting in the Scottish Parliament building, is one of the 42 contributors. "I knew the place really well," says McMullan, who teaches sculpture and environmental art at Glasgow School of Art. "I knew from a previous artist residency I'd done two years ago that I liked the library's work. I think it's such an incredible resource."
McMullan's print is inspired by hand- written notations and asterisks she found in the collection's books. "I got the volunteers to go through some of the books in the lending library just to find marks that people have made. We realised that there have been so many things marked that it's become a much bigger project. So I guess it's now going to become a map of the stars and then there would be a wee itinerary to show what they all refer to."
Each of the artworks in the exhibition will be made as a print, which will then be reproduced 20 times. The library plans to keep the first imprint of each work and sell the other 19. As Patrick explains, the price of each print will vary depending on the market value of each artist's work, with items such as stickers made by Ellie Harrison available for 50p and other works selling for several hundred pounds. Patrick says: "We're asking artists to give an honest valuation of their work, and in some cases that's important because they work with galleries. We tried to get a spread of artists, some that are up-and-coming and ones that are well-known."
Helen de Main, who studied at Glasgow School of Art, is one of the newer artists. De Main, who has been involved in the project from the beginning, is producing a work based on the feminist magazine Spare Rib. She says: "I came to a poster workshop last year, and at the time I was learning to screen print and I was very interested in the visual use of posters and propaganda material."
The written pieces (each up to 1000 words) will be read by the author, recorded and then transformed into a podcast and made available to download for free. "We thought it would be really great to use the writers' work to bring people to the library and its website," adds Patrick. "We're also hoping that next year we can have a publication that has all the writing and all the artwork within it."
Writers involved include AL Kennedy, Louise Welsh and Denise Mina. Scottish writer Kirsty Logan, who like many had worked with the library previously, has produced a short written piece, which also doubles as an artwork. She explains: "The library has this amazing collection of vintage fashion magazines going back to the 1930s. I made my four-page story entirely out of cut words from the magazines. So it was as much a visual project as it was a written one."
Patrick hopes these artworks and short stories will help inspire a new generation. "We thought there would be learning opportunities for people in the future, and I would like to see the exhibition go elsewhere as well and travel a little bit."
Becoming a part of the women's library archive was one of the reasons that writer Laura Marney, whose own submission is a short story set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, wanted to be involved. "I feel it's an absolute privilege. It's the idea that you become part of women's artistic history in Glasgow. It's an honour."
21 Revolutions: Exhibition of Writings runs at the Mitchell Library, North Streeet, Glasgow from September 22 to October 13, Monday to Friday, 10am to 4.30pm. The art exhibition runs at the CCA, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, from 11am to 6pm on the same dates
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