My research endeavors for my class research project — exploring the firsthand experiences of women during the Second World War — were largely based at the Women’s Library at the London School for Economics and Political Science, located just off The Strand in Central London. I visited the Women’s Library a total of four times and each time I came away feeling like I’d discovered some new secret treasure. This post incorporates a summary of my many visits over the course of my research project. It was definitely a growing and learning experience!
The first time I visited was on our first “designated independent research day”. I had read online about the requirements for membership to the Women’s Library, especially those restrictions and rules related to foreign visitors and people conducting academic research. However, I still had a few questions and other items that I wanted to clarify and confirm, so I visited the Inquiries Desk in-person. The librarian on the desk was extremely helpful and outlined exactly what I needed to do to become a member with my particular status, as well as how to schedule an appointment for a seat in the Reading Room and how to book materials to view. I also visited a small exhibition in the entryway of the library that was built around materials from the Women’s Library collections.
I returned to the library every following week after that, each time armed with my member card and materials I was allowed to take into the Reading Room (e.g., my iPad and keyboard for taking notes, phone for taking photographs, my list of resources consulted, etc.). Having already requested the materials I needed to see (by sending emails to the Reading Room staff with catalog links and reference and location numbers), I was able to always get right to work. The first time I visited, the librarian at the welcome and inquires desk explained the process to me: I would be assigned a particular seat at a particular table in the room, I would be assigned a matching numbered locker into which I should put everything not allowed into the room, and I would also be assigned another locker into which my materials would be placed. I would need to leave my member card with staff in exchange for the key to my materials locker. I would only be allowed to view one item (e.g., a box, file, etc.) at a time and had to re-lock the locker each time I took anything out of it. I would also have to return that item to the desk before I could go and retrieve the next one. Before I left the Reading Room, my personal belongings would be looked through to make sure nothing from the collections snuck in and then I would be returned my card.
Once I had the rules down pat, using the Women’s Library was quite easy. I viewed lots of different materials: scrapbooks with newspaper clippings from the Second World War that were all related to women in some way; the papers of Marjorie Hayward and Teresa Billington-Greig (both very active women during the war who wrote and documented an incredible amount about women’s experiences, particularly related to employment); a photography collection of women in wartime (WWI and WWII); and a collection of oral history interview transcripts conducted with some women who had lived and worked through the war. Some of these interviews were incorporated into a published book and later BBC documentary series called Out of the Doll’s House, which was published and broadcast in the late 1980s. I viewed the published book and also press releases from the BBC about the contents. I had to chase down some of the VHS copies of the actual documentary at another library (which is the topic of my other research visit post).
During the time I had the materials in front of me, I was busy as a bee: taking notes and photographs, connecting firsthand accounts to published references, and trying to conceptualize what these women’s experiences must have been like. It was amazing to see handwritten accounts of seeing bombs fall and air raid sirens blare, as well as listen to the voices of women who had been through so much. The longest time I spent in the Women’s Library Reading Room in one visit was nearly five hours! Overall, I spent around 12 hours analyzing and reviewing primary documents. There was just so much to read and see and take in. Now I have the task of organizing and condensing all of this incredible information into a final research paper, which will be difficult but very rewarding — not to mention hopefully helpful to future readers, researchers, and librarians. ***Note: In this post I did not include any photos of actual items in the collection that I viewed, in order to protect the privacy and security of the items (largely due to the unknown and inherently uncontrollable nature of social media and not wanting anything to end up somewhere that it shouldn’t).***