Artillery Row

What really happened in Nottingham

In 2022, women are no longer allowed to gather in public libraries

This is an account of women banned from libraries; a strange thing to have to write in 2022 — but here we all are. It all began with my mission to save three local community libraries under threat of closure by Nottingham City Council: Aspley Library, Basford Library and Radford Lenton Library.

That’s why I have been hosting events in libraries: to keep the issue of libraries on people’s radar locally. The event with Julie Bindel was the second talk I’ve hosted in one of the threatened libraries. I invited Julie to Nottingham to speak about her published books and her decades of work as a feminist activist campaigning on the issue of male violence against women and girls. This was on 1 May and I proposed an event date of 25 June; Julie kindly agreed and said she would be honoured to take part as libraries meant a great deal to her.

Julie Bindel gives a talk in the car park of a public library

I liaised with the library service over the phone to find a suitable space. Basford was unavailable for the date I wanted so it was agreed I could use Aspley. The library service even agreed to a lower hire fee than considering the events I have been hosting in these threatened public spaces. The room booking was confirmed on 20 May.

The event was published on 22 May and sold out within 48 hours; 35 people purchased tickets. It wasn’t a large room; we were due to discuss domestic and sexual violence, politics and feminism, a subject that might not draw attention from far and wide, or perhaps one that made people feel uncomfortable. For this reason, I did not advertise this talk as a library partnership event, nor did I link it to the Save Our Libraries campaign or release the venue details. I spoke with other women involved with Nottingham Women for Change and they were happy to host it under the group name and help on the day.

There were zero complaints from anyone about the event to me or any of the women involved in our group. None. On Wednesday 22 June I sent ticket holders venue information and information on parking and public transport. Due to the RMT strike, which we were all in full support of, I wanted to give time for people to plan journeys.

On Thursday afternoon I got an email from the library service saying they had received some complaints about the event and could I call to discuss. I did so and was told it was a small number of people who thought the talk could be offensive to the LGBTQ+ community. I am a bisexual woman and had not planned to rasie sexuality or transgender identity in the questions I put to Julie. It was not a talk about her being a lesbian but about her activism against male violence.

The library service confirmed to me that they had consulted the council’s LGBT network who said they would not endorse a talk by Julie Bindel but they also wouldn’t recommend my room booking be cancelled. The library service also confirmed they would take on board my work to mitigate any potential issues (I had hired security) and that it was a private booking for ticket holders only. They needed to pass it all on to the portfolio holder responsible for libraries who would make the decision: Pavlos Kotsonis.

We were picketed by a small group, half of whom said they were protesting Julie Burchill

On Thursday I called Kotsonis but he didn’t take my call. I emailed him and he replied that he had considered my email and the officer responsible for libraries would let me know if there was any change to my booking. On Friday at 11am the library service called me and said that the event could go ahead as planned. Later that day at 3.40pm, the head of the library service called to cancel my booking. He said the decision had been taken at the highest level of the council. I asked for clarification — did he mean David Mellen, the council leader? — and was told yes. I was disappointed and asked them to reconsider because of how difficult it would be for me to change venues this close to the event. They declined.

I asked instead if we — as members of the public — could still go into the library and talk there. I was told no. I then asked if they were really banning women from a public library, and the head of the library service, Nigel Hawkins, said he had been instructed to cancel the event; if Julie Bindel or myself went into the library to talk to each other we would be “barred from entering”. I was astounded by this and requested that the council leader call me to discuss his decision. But David Mellen refused.

Julie Bindel addresses the audience in the car park after being banned from using the public library

I asked for written confirmation of my room booking being cancelled. This was sent at 4.29pm. The room was booked for 9am the next morning with the event due to begin at 11am.

I was left with no choice but to go ahead with the event in the library car park. We were picketed by a small group, half of whom said they were protesting Julie Burchill. She was not even there and I have never met her. These are the people Nottingham City Council are led by in their decision making: confused people who don’t even know the name of the woman they are so opposed to.

Two police cars were sent to “keep an eye on things”. I spoke with two officers, explaining that they weren’t needed, no crime was committed and that they probably had better things to be getting on with than standing around in a car park with a bunch of women.

Later that day Nottingham City Council released a statement. They used two female councillors (who never spoke with me) as their representatives. Neither of these women, Adele Willams and Neghat Khan, are responsible for libraries. But the men who are must surely be embarrassed about banning women from a public library when all they wanted to do was speak. I would be if I were them.

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