March 16th 2020 was my own Covid-19 watershed. I started the day at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. I was speaking about GWL and our work with legendary feminist artist Linder; the audience had seemed marginally depleted, there was nervous laughter as the mic was passed around in the Q and As, hugs still happened, social isolation and social distancing were new terms that were yet to affect behaviour. On the train journey home from Cambridge to Scotland traveller numbers were noticeably reduced. By the time I joined the Museums Association conference planning meeting in Edinburgh that same evening, the atmosphere had shifted dramatically (hand sanitising routinised, a sombre mood, the MA team preparing for imminent lock down, a sense of this being a ‘Last Supper’). Fast forward: as I write just over a month has passed since this cognitive milestone and the subsequent rapid reorientation of GWL from an audience facing, building centred, live events and learning hub (with just two of our team focussed part-time on the digital realm) to knowing that our building is closed for the foreseeable, staff and volunteers all working from home and everyone committed to making our beloved resource function, make sense and have impact in the virtual world.
I wanted to briefly share at this stage three of my own observations of how GWL is responding to the COVID-19:
The GWL staff team members are specialists in adapting to and managing change. As a feminist cultural organisation, resilience and adaptability have been muscles we have had to develop. Change Making is one of our Strategic Aims Challenges have been ongoing and varied since 1991: insecurities (whether financial or concerning premises), neglect, and marginalisation (not to say derision) at the outset, and continuing political, social and cultural tumult and criticisms of every stripe (as well as opportunities and the challenges associated with growth and increased recognition), have had to be acknowledged, discussed and acted upon as a team whilst attempting to be a genuine resource ‘for all’.
As a team we nurture staff and volunteers creativity and potential beyond the Job Description. The consequent benefits for GWL and our users are that this solution focussed momentum for change has continued to be unleashed during COVID-19. Some years ago GWL established Creative Clusters – themed groups that enable the Board, staff, and volunteers to productively connect. Cluster members tackle ‘stuck’ issues using creativity and our shared Core Values as an anchor. Team members choose Clusters based on their knowledge, interests and passions. During this challenging period this embedded ‘can-do’ collaborative culture and variants on ‘clustering’ are blossoming. For example, I found reassurance in Week 1 from a bulletin sent by our cleaner who reported that she had enjoyed an online Green Cluster meeting, was writing a Blog about the GWL garden (with a volunteer) had attended the first Reader Development Cluster meeting (her first ‘Zoom’) was ‘studying a lot of online literature, including GWL’s Strategic Plan (which is really interesting) … I am getting a chance to do all the research I never seem to have time for…Tomorrow I’ll be in a Webex meeting, about video subtitling… my brain has been buzzing with all these new concepts and my creativity has also made a reappearance.’
The efforts made throughout GWL’s development to centre access and inclusion and consult those most excluded from the cultural offer has meant that aspects of our work are flowing freely with minimal sense of adaptions being needed (for example, in May we stage another of our Open the Door Digital Festival, in planning for several months, the first of these digital festivals took place in 2018). Staff with digital skills have been quick to share expertise and have demonstrated exemplary leadership in an organisational culture where learning as a principle for all was already embedded.
A culture of care and kindness that people feel when they use our building or visit us online, and that characterises the staff and Board cohort, is ensuring that so far, our ship is steady and our work is making a difference. Amongst staff and Board I have sensed excitement percolating about how these current challenges can cultivate change at GWL and beyond.
There is of course no room for complacency, we are all mindful that the challenges: financial, existential, social, local and global, guarantee turbulence in the cultural waters as far as the horizon. Meantime, we can derive courage from a glance at the stirring stories on our (virtual) shelves and in our collections and can draw on our own history of tenacity, survival and creatively navigating the storms of the past three decades. In amongst the inevitable personal and professional dis-ease that change can engender, the team at GWL harbour dreams that in this, the latest ‘crisis’ that we are being asked to navigate, may engender shifts that could bring us closer to realising our Vision, Mission and deepen our Values.
Adele Patrick is a co-founder and Creative Development Manager at Glasgow Women’s Library. In the year leading up to the Lock Down Adele undertook a Clore Leadership Fellowship and produced Post Fellowship Research. In a GWL Twitter Take Over (08.04.2020) Adele shared the demands she was making of herself as a Feminist Leader.