photo: Nottingham Women's Centre
The first time I met Zaimal was a couple of years ago at a meeting of Nottingham’s Reclaim the Night march. As an employee of Nottingham Women’s Centre, she showed us the building's radical history and the important work that goes on within its walls. On the tour, I visited a dimly lit loft room scattered with boxes, untidy shelves of books and old magazines. With a face lit up like a child’s, she said, “This is the library. We are trying to sort it out.” What I didn’t know on that evening, was that Zaimal Azad is, in fact, a librarian. A militant, kick-ass librarian. And this is far from an oxymoron.
Zaimal grew up in Karachi, the largest and most populous metropolitan city in Pakistan, where there are no public libraries. Collections of books are generally owned by private collectors, hosted in elite clubs. Proper books in proper bookshops are an expensive luxury and rarely a realistic purchase for a young girl with minimal pocket money. But none of this was any opposition to the passionate and curious Zaimal who, still in single figures, accidentally invented her first library.
A busy and prosperous city, Karachi is a mish-mash of hustle and bustle. Buildings overspill into the busy streets and, among the melee, sit small, probably illegal, street stalls selling books, where Zaimal would indulge her passion for the written word. Unable to shell out the full price to accommodate her voracious appetite for words, she hit upon a deal and began borrowing books for a small fee, returning them and then renting another – a library system in its purest form.
These small stalls offered an access to literature that would never have been possible otherwise, and it’s with real sadness that Zaimal tells us she recently discovered these educational lifelines have gone missing. Nobody knows why, and it is a real loss to the youngsters in her family.
Aged seventeen, Zaimal made her first journey to the UK, staying with family in London. Before the usual desires to see Big Ben or Stonehenge, her first priority was to visit a library. Not a showy city one, but an average British public library. On stepping into somewhere most Brits take for granted, she was enveloped in its magic. “It was everything I had imagined, everything I’d dreamed of. I had always thought that heaven was a library, and I wasn’t let down.”
She later moved to Nottingham to study, and the rich history of our libraries was part of the draw. We are very lucky here to have such a wealth of hangouts for the dedicated bibliophile. For example, what Angel Row Central Library lacks in aesthetic value is made up for in content: weathering the swingeing austerity cuts that have seen many similar institutions close, or be manned by untrained volunteers. Nottingham’s hidden jewel, Bromley House Library, is on the verge of celebrating its bicentenary, and is in better shape than ever. Fine interior architecture, a maze of rooms, splendid oasis in the city garden, and its eccentric stacking system – where a tome from the early nineteenth century about malarial swamp drainage can be found nestling happily, spine-to-spine, with a Ruth Rendell.
We also have a radical library in the form of the anarchist Sparrow’s Nest, with its large collection on political, anti-establishment publications. It’s part of a centuries-old tradition of radical debate in a city famous for revolutionary and anti-establishment thought, with the stories of Robin Hood, Ned Ludd, Lord Byron, Alan Sillitoe and Ray Gosling pumping blood through Nottingham’s veins. And Zaimal was soon to make her own contribution to our library landscape.
illustration: Jess Rose
“The Women’s Centre manager, Mel, gave a talk at the uni about what they do there,” she says. “She told us we were welcome to go along and use the space, and then she mentioned that they had an old library that really needed sorting out.” It's hard to know if it was this offer, the centre’s fabulous militant history or the amazing, supportive activist women that kept Zaimal coming back, but she continued volunteering. In the final year of her degree, when her mind should have been on her dissertation, she began, in “a fit of madness”, to sort out the library.
“Mel really gave me free reign,” explains Zaimal. “She said I could just go for it and do whatever I liked with it.” After finishing her degree, she became a full-time employee and, this year, thanks to grants and hard work from volunteers, the new Women's Library opened. The space is unrecognisable from the dingy room we had seen just two years earlier. It is now bright, welcoming and contains two inbuilt counselling rooms used by various organisations based in the centre. Despite its obvious physical transformation, we had little understanding on that opening night of the level of commitment this venture had required or the legacy it was creating beyond its space.
“The cataloguing system was a nightmare,” describes Zaimal. “Nothing I looked at quite fit and it was then I realised that these systems, particularly the Dewey, are hugely patriarchal and racist.” This might seem a strange concept, but it doesn’t take long for her to convince you. Libraries act as filters: what is put on the shelves is subject to this filter, as is how it is organised. It therefore can easily favour certain subjects over others, and relegate important categories to sub-sections of sub-sections. Huge swaths of thought therefore can be dismissed as ‘other’. Zaimal decided to ditch the Dewey, and look elsewhere.
With passion, she describes the visits to existing women’s libraries, her search for a system of organisation and index that didn't automatically ‘other’ women writers, writers of colour, or gay and lesbian authors. The creation of this library has created so much more. The process of research led to an opening of communication with women’s libraries across the UK and across the world. A new network of radical/feminist libraries has spread, which communicates, holds conferences, shares ideas and empowers others to build new libraries and organise them fairly and with true equality to all authors and users.
When you think of a librarian, many, including me, conjure an image of a cardigan-clad older lady, peering at you over her spectacles while she stamps your book. What I have learned from my friend, my feminist sister and fellow activist, is that librarians are so much more. They are powerful. They are the true custodians of knowledge and they, at least to some degree, have the ability to challenge the balance of power in the world by changing the order we see things.
Zaimal has now left Nottingham to work in London. Yet she has set something up in Nottingham that will go on to influence the world in a positive way. The network will keep growing, and the Women’s Centre Library will thrive. Just as we finish putting together this article, Zaimal sends over a photo from Karachi with the title ‘They’re Back!’. It’s a shot of the roadside booksellers she mentioned before, who started the whole adventure for her. It’s great news, and Nottingham should be grateful of Zaimal Azad, the Woman Who Leaves Libraries Wherever She Goes.
Nottingham’s Women Centre Library, Chaucer Street, is open to all women for membership.
National Libraries’ Day is on Saturday 6 February, see listings for related events.