Hello, Barry. How and when did you get involved with the Kate Sharpley Library?
I first visited the KSL in 1983/1984. I had been around the edges (and probably too involved) of some rather intense disagreements about anarchism and anarchist practice. I had become aware that within anarchism there were numerous histories and practices and I wanted to find out more. At the time the Library was in a squat in St Georges’ Residences in Brixton. Col Longmore and Ineke Frencken had done a magnificent job in rescuing and organizing it. I vividly remember looking at some small fliers advertising meetings on supporting Spanish exiles in the nineteen forties and reading copies of “Direct Action” from the same period. Something changed in me. I became an obssessive seeker of anarchist papers, books, pamphlets, ephemera etc. I wanted, in retrospect, to keep them alive in some way. I also visited the British Library, LSE, Warwick etc just reading in the archives there. All the time, though I was bothered that much of our history was in state hands and not within easy access of many of us. It is still not that easy to be an “independent” scholar and access these materials. Above all I could not understand why “prominent” anarchists gave their material to state or private universities and not keep them within the movement – or at least make sure that copies were made of everything so it was with us and hopefully, a little more accessible. I came back full circle then to appreciate the KSL and the work they were doing. It was labour intensive and hardly full of glamour but it was, I felt, vital.
And what happened next?
So my idea was always to, eventually, donate all the stuff I was collecting to KSL, once it had found a more secure home. Then, I think in 1991, I learnt from Albert Meltzer that the KSL was in search of a new home. I was living in Stamford [near Peterborough] at the time and, I guess, did just about have room for it and I volunteered. I cannot say my Mrs was too happy as we arrived with a minibus full of boxes (twice!!) but she put on a fixed smile and made some coffee. She did mutter loudly, I remember. As far as I can recall I was very intimidated by both the sheer amount and the responsibility of having it in our house. Feelings I have never lost, alongside the excitement of it all.
When you took it on, did the library fill a spare room? The whole house? And what sort of material did it already contain?
The Library filled up one room with boxes and I put others on the floor, on tables etc. Initially I began to sort what I could. English language books, papers, newspapers, pamphlets, correspondence, ephemera in one place etc. Other languages all grouped together as well. As I did this I chatted to Albert about future plans. He was very keen on KSL becoming a little publishing house by publishing some of the material it had. Col and Ineke had produced some nice Bulletins and he was keen to make these a regular feature. That was the genesis of the Bulletin of the KSL. The first publication, while I was still unpacking(!!), was George Cores’ “Personal Recollections of the Anarchist Past” which he took from George’s manuscript. Meanwhile I had chatted to Albert, I think, about changing the emphasis of the KSL. When it arrived it had considerable amounts of anarchist historical material in it. It also had material that anarchists could use – health and safety regulations etc; standard histories of Fascism; books about various aspects and periods of history etc, etc. From my own searching I had become to realise there was so much material by and about anarchists that I felt KSL should concentrate on that. I should say that, at that time, I did not realise just how much there was!! Putting it simply KSL should exist for the collection and diffusion of our history. I had begun to sense that the narrative of anarchist histories and ideas were complex ones and we had only begun to scrape the surface of it. Albert was much further ahead of me in that regard.
“Albert was much further ahead of me” – can you expand on that?
Albert knew that anarchism was not just Kropotkin or Stirner, or whoever. It was the putting into practice of it all that was important. He knew that this could be done by people who had only a bare knowledge (if any!!) of our major writers and thinkers. He also knew that histories of anarchism excluded countless people who had been instrumental in its development and changes. Because these people often did not write theory or were prominent speakers they were ignored. He also knew that, among anarchists, anarchist history could be a history of bitter contention and was as partial as any history. He was reading accounts of his times in anarchism that, to him, were not particularly accurate. Ironically of late that has begun to happen to me, leaving me to wonder if I have forgotten lots of things, or just not been aware. So all this I sensed.
How has the Library changed since you took it on? I assume it’s now larger?
The most obvious change in the Library is its sheer size. It has grown exponentially. Friends and Comrades have donated material, we have bought an awful lot and, as a result, it is massive. You think you know most of the stuff that is out there, yet, everyday, we are constantly coming across material, or references to it, that we have never heard of. It’s mostly, all shelved now, or in archive boxes. That helps!! A major difference is that we have accepted that we are an archive. Our job is not just to collect, but to preserve as well. There are not that many Latvian anarchist papers around from the 1900s. We do well to make sure they survive. Consequently much of our time and money (always money) goes into archival preservation material – archive folders, acid free folders, acid free mylar envelopes for our pamphlets etc etc. I was amazed just how much all this stuff costs. We have saved up to buy some acid free boxes. Damn someone is making money somewhere!!
Can you hazard a guess at how many books the library now contains? Or how many minibuses it would fill?
We have over two thousand books, three thousand pamphlets and over two thousand periodicals – and that is in the English language alone. We have large French, Italian and Spanish sections, as well as publications in most languages, including Esperanto. I cannot even begin to assess the amount of anarchist ephemera we have. You would need a few pantechnicons now!!
[Part two of this interview will appear in our next issue]