Perspectives on
Anarchist Theory

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Vol. 1 - No. 1
Spring 1997


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Preserving Our Past: The Anarchist Collections
by Jerry Kaplan

In different parts of the world a small number of individuals, groups, and both public and private institutions are actively collecting and cataloging anarchist related materials. There are also others who have taken on the less exciting but equally essential task of maintaining older, established collections. And, while the motivation for acquiring these materials may vary somewhat for each, there is one thing they all have in common: a recognition of the importance of preserving the ideas and practice of anarchism, as recorded by its adherents, its sympathizers, and even - though opinions may differ on this point - its critics, so that these historical records may be of use to interested researchers and inquirers.

Anarchists have good reason to want their history preserved: so that we can learn what individual anarchists really thought and said without having to rely on another's interpretation; be inspired by their accomplishments: and gain insight into their lives and desires. These collections allow us, as well as others, to learn from anarchism's rich history.

The existing collections of anarchist-related materials can be grouped in a variety of ways. What often determines, or at least influences, the size, focus, accessibility, and funding of a particular collection is whether it is independently or institutionally held. As someone responsible for an independently held collection, I find the differences between the two quite significant.

The independent collections are usually the work of one or more anarchists motivated by a personal interest in the anarchist milieu to collect materials and establish and maintain small archival collections. In the US, the Anarchist Archives Project (AAP) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is an example of this kind of collection. I began working on the project in 1982, and over the last 11 years have collected some 8,000 items. To the best of my knowledge, the AAP is the only independent archival collection in the US currently acquiring anarchist-related materials from around the world and being coordinated by an anarchist. It is probably the largest cataloged collection in the US in non-institutional hands. The Kate Sharpley Library (KSL) in London is also an example of this type of independently held collection, although it reflects the work of a small number of anarchists rather than one individual. The Alternative (or A) Gallery in Greece is yet another independently held collection.

The institutional collections are often connected to a university, as is the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, or the state, as in the case of the impressive collection at the International Institute for Social History in the Netherlands. There are also a number of smaller, but nevertheless important, collections, such as the Joseph Ishill collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library. However, the libraries that possess these smaller collections, while committed to maintaining the materials and perhaps even recognizing their historical importance, may not have any special interest in the history of anarchism per se nor be actively seeking to expand their holdings.

Comparing the different collections according to whether or not they stand alone or have the backing of a public or private institution illustrates many of the other differences between the two types of collections. The institutionally held collections have more funds available to them to purchase not only additional materials for their collections, if they are, in fact, still acquiring materials, but also equipment, such as computers, scanners, microfilm readers, etc., needed to run any good library. The institutionally held collections are generally located in larger, more accessible public spaces, and offer regular and longer hours of operation. The presence of paid, full-time staff is another significant difference between the two. The independents are much poorer than their institutional cousins. They depend to a greater extent on the generosity of others for donations of materials and financial contributions, to supplement the limited funds, time, and commitment of the individual or individuals directly involved with the everyday work of collecting.

Another difference between the institutionally and independently held collections can be seen in their focus. The independently held anarchist collections usually have a narrower focus, and this is as much a function of the interests of the collectors involved as lack of funds. For example, the AAP collection is almost exclusively composed of anarchist-related materials, with a few council communist and situationist items thrown in. The KSL, in addition to its collection of anarchist-related materials, contains materials dealing with class struggle history, as well as a few other related subjects. But not all the independents are as specialized; the A Gallery has a much broader focus and anarchist materials make up only one part of its total collection. With institutionally held collections, the anarchist portion is but one among other, not necessarily related collections, or only one part of a much larger collection appearing under a heading like "The Left" or "Labor."

However, institutionally held collections don't hold all the advantages. Those involved with the independently held collections tend to have more direct links to the anarchist milieu and thus more direct access to the materials produced by anarchist activists. The importance of personal connections, as well as knowing where to look and whom to write to, cannot be underestimated. Flyers, leaflets and other items, often produced locally in small numbers, can easily escape the attention of non-anarchist collectors.

So collectors with a good knowledge of the anarchist "scene" can to some extent make up for the lack of funds. However, the independent collections are much less likely to have very rare and old documents because of the expense involved. That is, unless one is fortunate enough to know a wealthy collector who has willed his or her collection to one's project. But anarchists tend to be a poor lot. And the few better-known anarchists around usually make arrangements to donate their personal collections to institutions.

If an independently held collection acquires rare items, it is most likely through a donation made by an older anarchist. Nevertheless, it does happen, as it has to me, and always to my delight, that once in a great while one can find a reasonably-priced rare item in a used bookstore. Still, in spite of the limitations imposed by modest funds, the independently held collections are still in a good position to acquire items that, while not rare or valuable now, may become so in the future. It is not a coincidence that a number of the institutional collections, like the Labadie Collection whose value to historians and others increases over the years, began as independent collections.

Each of the independently and institutionally held collections has its own strengths, a result of a combination of a number of related factors: the personal interests of the collector or collectors involved and their ideas about what an archival collection should look like, that is, if they are still acquiring and therefore defining their collections; the materials they've been able to find (and can afford to purchase), as well as the amount of time spent on doing this; and the quantity and contents of the donations received. The AAP collection, for example, contains a significant number of Italian and Italian-American anarchist materials. This happened, not because of anything I did, but because of the generous donations of a handful of individuals who happened to possess these items. The KSL, on the other hand, has in its collection a large number of Spanish anarchist materials, due in no small part to the number of Spanish anarchists who settled in England after Franco's victory in Spain.

Geography and time also play an important role in defining the strengths of a collection, and also, inversely, its weaknesses. The AAP collection is strongest in the area of US and Canadian anarchist materials published in the last twenty years, mostly because these items are the easiest to find if you happen to be collecting here and now. These are also the kinds of items most often donated. It's also much easier to find items here in the Boston area than it was in Buffalo, New York, where the project began. However, this advantage has its limits: being based in the Boston area has not made it any easier to locate locally published items on Sacco or Vanzetti, or the 19th century Boston anarchists like Benjamin Tucker.

It often happens that items hard to find in one place and therefore considered "rare," may be more easily found elsewhere. This is certainly true for most things published abroad. A number of out-of-print periodicals produced in the UK may be next to impossible to acquire on this side of the Atlantic. With out-of-print, non-English language periodicals, the problem is even greater. But it also happens that collections acquire duplicates of items already in their possession, and these can be used to trade for other, needed items. The Kate Sharpley Library and the Anarchist Archives Project engage in a fairly regular exchange of items. This kind of exchange benefits both parties, and is an important way of acquiring items otherwise difficult to find.

Each archive or library may differ with respect to size and focus, but most provide a number of basic services. These typically include low cost photocopying and research assistance. Some may offer additional services (providing bibliographies, database searches, etc.) to varying degrees. Access to some collections may be limited either because they are housed in a private residence, like the AAP and KSL, or because one is not affiliated with a school or have the right credentials, i.e. - be an academic, as is the case with the Joseph Ishill collection at Harvard. But even the librarians at Harvard will respond to letters, provide you with information, and photocopy requested items.

Finally, besides the AAP, the KSL, and the A Gallery, there are a number of other anarchist collections worth mentioning: Das Anarchiv in Basel and the Anarchistischen Dokumentations-zentrum in Weltzar, Germany; the Centro Studi Libertari "Giuseppe Pinelli. in Milan, Italy; the Centre D'Etudes et de Documentation Librairie in Lyon, and the Centre International de Recherches sur l'Anarchisme in Marseille, France; the Fundacion Salvador Segui in Madrid, Spain; and the Centre International de Recherches sur l'Anarchisme in Lausanne, Switzerland. There are others as well.

If you're interested in donating items, contributing financially or finding out more about the Anarchist Archives Project, or would like the address of one of the other anarchist collections, please write me at: Jerry Kaplan, c/o The AA Project, P.O. Box 1323, Cambridge, MA 02238 US.


Editor’s Note: This essay was edited for length and was first published in Kick It Over!, No. 32 (Fall, 1993), pp. 38-40. You can reach Kick It Over! at PO Box 5811, Station A, Toronto, Ontario, M5W 1P2, Canada.

The AAP has grown considerably since this essay appeared: it now holds more than 12,000 items.