Female guide to shelf fulfilment

December 3, 1999

Where can you see Sally Gunnell's unitard, Emily Davison's train ticket, Darcy Bussell's shoes, and quite a few books? Anne Sebba reports on the first National Library of Women and its director, Antonia Byatt

T he newly appointed director of Britain's first National Library of Women, Antonia Byatt, wants to make it a place with a buzz, not just a dusty old museum full of dry archives.

"I want it to be very contemporary and have a sense of history. I want it to look at new ways to interpret women's history, perhaps getting artists involved to show the past in ways we hadn't thought of, using original displays, publications or even short films. There are so many possibilities," she says.

Byatt, 39, daughter of the novelist and former academic A. S. Byatt, is still defining her vision of how a multipurpose, multimedia museum in the 21st century should chronicle the rapidly changing roles of women. She seems an inspired choice to give new life to the library.

After her parents divorced and her young brother was killed in an accident, she grew up in an overtly female environment with her mother and two younger half-sisters. "Which isn't to say that my father (economist and former Durham don Ian Byatt) wasn't also a very strong influence on my life," she says. Despite reading English at Cambridge and her literary family background (as well as her mother, to whom she bears an uncanny physical resemblance, the novelist Margaret Drabble is her aunt), she insists she never wanted to be a writer herself.

Having the same name as a famous person who happens to be your mother has brought some frustration, but nothing more, she says. "I know my mother is an extraordinary person, but I just find it odd when people automatically assume they're talking to her, to imagine how they think she could produce all those novels and do the job I do."

She leaves her present post as head of literature at the South Bank Centre in January and then has until spring 2001 before the library opens to the public in London's East End. She is in no doubt of the need for such a library or of the continuing relevance of feminism.

"There are still battles to be won. Two areas I'm especially interested in are what happens when women get older, largely unexplored still, and what control or choice do they have over their own bodies; who makes the medical decisions? The confrontational style of 1970's feminism may be a thing of the past, that is not the way to investigate issues. But how to examine the relationship between the sexes - and to consider the problems of men who are less sure about their role - that concerns us all.

"I want the library to look like a place where you can 'hang out' as well as do specific things. The local community has a vital role, too, because the building is sandwiched between the City and Brick Lane. What are the experiences of Asian women in the area who weren't born in Britain, or women in Hoxton, which has lots of young film-makers? We mustn't ignore the interesting women on our doorstep."

Everyone involved in the project wants to foster local links. The Pounds 11 million library is appropriately being built on the site of a former Victorian public bathhouse-cum-laundry. The listed facade will be retained, as this was originally a building intended to improve the lives of women in a very poor area and was important as a place where women met up. But the interior will tell both the old and a new story, showing the bright future of women as active shapers of society. According to Maureen Castens, London Guildhall University's academic services director, who had the idea for the building six years ago: "If we're going to be celebrating women's achievements into the future, let's also have some knowledge about our past. The mangle was once new technology for women just as the computer is today."

The core of the museum will be the Fawcett Library collection, one of the world's oldest established women's libraries, founded in 1926 as part of the London Society for Women's service. This is a treasure trove of 60,000 books, more than 2,000 pamphlets, as well as artefacts with particularly strong archive material from the suffrage movement. The Fawcett includes other collections, such as papers from the Josephine Butler Society, Cavendish-Bentinck and Sadd Brown. Recently, it was bequeathed the papers of Phyllis Deakin, one of the first accredited women war correspondents who entered Paris after the Germans left at the end of the second world war. Although it provides an international resource for thousands of researchers, it is struggling to cope with the inadequate facilities of its present home, a cramped basement at London Guildhall University.

Much of the ephemera, so important as an educational resource for bringing history alive, can rarely be on show at London Guildhall. For example, the Fawcett owns the train ticket bought by Emily Davison on the day she flung herself beneath the king's horse at the 1913 Derby to make a protest on behalf of women's suffrage. Since it is a return ticket, found in a tiny purse on her body, she probably did not intend to commit suicide. This will be on permanent display in the new library, as well as 50 beautiful women's suffrage banners.

At the same time, the Contemporary Women Project has gathered such diverse items as a pair of ballet shoes worn by Darcy Bussell, the Royal Ballet's youngest ever principal ballerina, signed copies of Barbara Cartland novels wrapped in pink paper and a signed unitard worn by Sally Gunnell at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993 when she set a world record for the women's 400-metres hurdles. All are destined for display in 2001.

After university, Byatt undertook a variety of jobs, going first to New York to work with a photographer and then spending three years working for the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority - a particularly fascinating time "because we knew the GLC was a doomed organisation and yet there was this radical administration trying to change things. Working there taught me a lot about change but also about the dangers of bureaucracy. I'm not a very bureaucratic person."

In 1987 she went to the Fawcett Society as general secretary, where she honed her interest in women's rights and first began to appreciate the impressive group of women who had battled for small advances in women's lives we now take for granted. In 1988 she moved to the Arts Council as literature officer and for the past six years has been in her present job at the South Bank Centre.

Colleagues consider her an ideas person and one of the most successful projects she initiated has been the series of "Sounding the century" lectures, in partnership with the BBC. The South Bank job, which involves regular weekend and night work as well as dealing with creative temperaments and last-minute crises, clearly requires a person of almost unlimited energy. As the mother now of three young children, a son of eight and daughters of six and two, Byatt's energy is not in doubt. Nor is her understanding of the difficulties faced by mothers who want to work. "I received the letter inviting me to interview for this job when I had just arrived back from holiday and had no childcare in place nor time to prepare for the interview."

Plans for the NLOW include an exhibition hall, lecture theatre, readers' rooms, conference facilities, broadcast media studio, school children's area, garden, shop - and a good cafe. "When I was waiting to be interviewed I noticed the area was really short of cafes, so that's a priority," she says.

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