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Why the UK’s biggest lesbian archive is so important

Glasgow Women’s Library houses a huge collection of periodicals, pamphlets, and objects that focus on LGBTQ women’s history

Glasgow Women’s Library is not your typical library. Finalists for this year’s Art Fund Museum of the Year award, the Women’s Library is part-library, part-archive, and the only accredited museum in the UK dedicated to preserving women’s lives, histories, and communities. An explicitly intersectional feminist museum, the Women’s Library has become one of Glasgow’s most treasured organisations, a cross-community hub in Glasgow’s East End. The library’s focus is three-fold: to be a safe space for women to read, improve their literacy, mingle, and chat; to champion female authors “forgotten” from the canon, and to unearth and preserve women’s history. The latter aim has manifested in the Women’s Library’s extensive Lesbian Archive: the UK’s largest collection of materials with a focus on women and non-binary people’s LGBTQ+ history.

The Lesbian Archive began its life in London, and was based there until 1994, when its original collectors became unable to manage it anymore. Adele Patrick, the Women’s Library’s lifelong learning and creative development manager, was the staff member who spotted an article in the Pink Paper, the UK newsletter that covered LGBTQ+ issues, stating that the Lesbian Archive was in danger of being broken up. “I didn’t even know much about archives before we got the collection,” Adele tells me, chuckling. “All I thought was ‘wow, these are incredibly important materials connected to lesbian lives, they have to be saved.’”

In what Adele calls “time-honoured Women’s Library style,” the librarians told the archivists that they could take the Archive. “I remember the day when a huge Technicolor truck arrived at the Women’s Library, driven by a lesbian truck company who brought the collection. It was quite emotional because we had lots of lesbian and bi volunteers. I remember the process of these materials arriving and how important and talismanic they were for some of the older women who, back in the 50s, would have received some of these publications in brown paper envelopes. It was a difficult time to be out, in the post-war period.”

Over 20 years and several moves later, the Archive now resides in the Library’s newly renovated and permanent home. Due to its rare nature, the Archive has become a focus for academics, as well as the LGBTQ+ community. Consisting of periodicals, magazines, political pamphlets, and flyers as well as personal items like clothes and badges (“dildos too,” Adele adds), the collection is the history of queer women since the early 1900s.


The archive’s biggest draw is that it focuses on LGBTQ+ women – something rare even within more general LGBTQ+ collections, which tend to be male-focused. “Young women want to learn about their history,” says Adele. “They want to know about what the relationship between lesbians, gay men and trans people was like.”

The archive also reveals the relationship between lesbian communities, feminism, and politics. “Of course there are records which illustrate lesbian separatism lurking,” says Adele. “There are things in the collection that say ‘for lesbians only,’ but there is also lots of evidence of what we would now call intersectional feminist material, even from 40 years ago. There were people who were thinking in a wide, inclusive way about women of colour, and issues to do with disability and sexuality. Thinking about poverty and class and how that mixes in with all these other ways that people identify. That’s illuminating for a lot of young women who think it was only recently that we’ve come to talk about things in an intersectional way. That’s why these collections are so important: because they tell us that people have always thought outside the box.”


When the Lesbian Archive first arrived in Scotland, it was understandably London-focused. People who view the collection are often surprised to see records of the Camden Black Lesbian Centre and other items relating to projects in London. Once it arrived in Glasgow, the Women’s Library set about opening up the archive, ensuring that the entirety of the UK is represented. “We are committed to make sure the collection evolves,” says Adele. “It isn’t maintained as a static archive, but we are continually developing it to better reflect the lives of women not just in Scotland but further afield as well.”

The archive features materials from the first Scottish Pride march that happened in Edinburgh in 1995, as well as flyers, badges, and banners from important LGBTQ+ and women-focused events. The library has been using these personal items to teach the public about queer history. “We had a fantastic exhibition about the evolution of the acronyms that describe the movement and used the badges to do so. Often for people who aren’t confident readers or maybe don’t read English confidently, badges are one of the ways people can get in on the collection more easily.”


Recently, the library has been collecting activists’ materials from the Repeal campaign, which led to Ireland legalising abortion earlier this year. Unlike large institutions, the Women’s Library is dedicated to documenting history as it is happening. This initiative was one of the reasons why they were a finalist for the Museum of the Year award. “It’s hard to imagine where these materials would have gone if the archive hadn’t come to Scotland,” says Adele. “So few LGBTQ+ people I know would imagine their materials as historically significant.”


As well as documenting the history being made everyday, the archive is also a world famous collection of 20th century LGBTQ+ magazines, publications, and journals. As Adele states, “when you look at these publications, you’re looking at LGBTQ+ life in the making, it’s being created through these pages.” Printed in the 1920s, Urania is the collection’s earliest publication, and perhaps the UK’s first lesbian periodical, although it was more a form of underground communication than a glossy magazine. A subscription and membership were needed to receive it, and it had a very limited circulation. Around the same time, The Ladder was also produced, a similarly small but mighty publication. While today we have the internet to learn about sexuality, in the 1920s, female homosexuality didn’t even exist as an identity. In Urania and The Ladder, you can see queer women beginning to articulate what we would now call LGBTQ+ sexualities.

A later magazine, Sappho, was published in the 70s by a collective of lesbian and bi women. Sappho has a special connection to the Women’s Library as one of its editors, Jackie Forester, was a friend of the library’s, and one of the women who actually brought the archive to Glasgow. Early LGBTQ+ publications, like Urania, The Ladder, and Sappho, are essential documents that tells us about how queer women formed their identities throughout history. “They’re almost like forums for people who are clearly alienated in the mainstream,” describes Adele. “They’re generally not out and living quite fugitive lives. The sense of communities forming is palpable reading through the pages.”


A major section of the archive is composed of political materials from activist groups such as the Lesbian Avengers – an activist group Adele herself was a part of. “It was myself and one of the other managers at GWL,” she laughs. “As a young woman, the Lesbian Avengers sounded just the kind of thing you want to do!” A worldwide political organisation, the Lesbian Avengers took direct action against LGBTQ+ women’s oppression.

When Adele was a Lesbian Avenger, Section 28 was in place in the UK –  a piece of legislation stating that local authorities could not “promote” or publish material about homosexuality, enacted in 1988. “It was a dark time,” Adele remembers. “One of the consequences of Section 28 was that the council couldn’t promote homosexuality. One of the ways that that was interpreted in the Mitchell Library (Glasgow’s biggest library and the largest reference library in Europe) was that you had to go to the desk and ask to see the Pink Paper. It wasn’t publicly out, the way it should have been, and the way it had been in the past. To not be prosecuted, the council decided that the best thing to do was have the Pink Paper on request. We knew that this was stupid and homophobic, but for so many people who weren’t out or who were anxious about being seen to be out, they wouldn’t ask for the Pink Paper, and therefore wouldn’t be able to access the information that they needed.”

As queer superheroes, the Lesbian Avengers decided to take action. “We campaigned outside the Mitchell Library in our Lesbian Avengers t-shirts and with our banners, handing out information. Then we ran through the library screaming and hollering at the top of our voices, making fantastic noise and distributing flyers.” The Lesbian Avengers’ protest worked. “The librarians supported us and we did get the change. It was one of those milestones where at the time, we were very much marginalised and an organisation seen in opposition to the mainstream. Our values have remained the same and our approach to supporting social justice has remained the same, but it does show that within the mainstream things changed and are changing.”


The personal is undoubtedly the political when it comes to queer women’s history. The Women’s Library’s connection to grassroots organisations means that the Lesbian Archive is full of donated personal objects. “Museums often say that (grassroots communities) are hard to reach, but we’re close to them because we are them,” says Adele. “People know what we do and we inherit a lot. The imagination knows no bounds in terms of things handed in to the collection over the years.” One of Adele’s personal favourites is a Dusty Springfield-themed fan scrapbook. “It’s obviously from a lesbian who was besotted with Dusty and had kept a beautiful scrapbook. I imagine how it must have been if you weren’t out, and you saw Dusty in all her glory come out, and how that impacted young women who didn’t have the internet or maybe lived in some remote place in Scotland. These artefacts can reveal so much.”

It goes without saying that the Women’s Library’s Lesbian Archive is something special. The collection doesn’t just document queer Scottish and British history – it is this history. “We’re really keen for members of the LGBTQ+ community who feel alienated from museums, or who don’t find even their local libraries accessible, to come here and make themselves at home,” says Adele.

The Women’s Library call themselves “guardians of the collection,” tasked with protecting and developing the archive, but firmly position themselves as temporary caretakers. “These materials belong to the LGBTQ+ community,” says Adele, firmly. While Adele may no longer be a Lesbian Avenger, the Glasgow Women’s Library is undoubtedly avenging the history of marginalised women in the UK, and the lives that have been excluded from and forgotten by mainstream museums and male-dominated historical narratives.