A Library is Born

As the very first librarian of the CIRA (Centre International de Recherches sur l’Anarchisme - International Centre for Research on Anarchism) and the sole survivor of the earliest contributors to the venture; Henri Robert, Giovanni Gozzi and André Bösiger having passed away, one after the other), I am also the very first and the very last to be in a position talk about it.

The library’s first premises were at 24 bis, Avenue Henri-Dunant on the Plainpalais square in Geneva, in the attic of a two-story building overlooking a courtyard. The eldest of us, André Bösiger, whilst not really one for reading (being above all short of time to spend on it) was nevertheless a bibliophile as we were and it was André who talked his old friend Alex Burtin (the owner of the building) into letting us have the extra room we needed to add to the tiny, ground floor that apartment that I was renting (for a peppercorn rent).

Our initial holdings were made up of what was left of Louis Bertoni’s personal library at 6, Rue des Savoises (at the home of his former landlady) or in the home of Henri Robert, an elderly watchmaker comrade in Neuchâtel, to which we travelled out with the late lamented Giovanni Gozzi (to whom I was very close). The Robert family welcomed us with open arms, helped us load up the car and offered us a (200 Swiss francs?) donation, the first ever made towards our venture. The “Robert Collection” contained works drawn from the erstwhile Bibliothèque Germinal belonging to the French-Italian Le Réveil Anarchiste. The books were primarily in Italian and French and were a motley collection, from grammars, dictionaries and novels through to plays, biographies, etc. To boost our funds, we sold off anything that was not anarchist (and above all, made purchases at our own expense) and later this enabled us to secure rather bigger premises, renting No 11, Rue des Granges and moving in once the collection had reached a given size. (1)

The “Bertoni Collection” was primarily made up of lots of books and newspapers, several of these outstanding: like the Italian edition of Kropotkin’s The Great French Revolution (we discovered later that the translation was by one Benito Mussolini, and this was confirmed when we stumbled across a post card from that sad individual to Bertoni, claiming his fee for the work done), the statutes of the Berlin-based IWA, a collection of pamphlets published clandestinely by Le Réveil Anarchiste during the war, a pamphlet by Leverdays, postcards with portraits of Kropotkin and Bakunin, etc.

We also began dropping in on antiquarians and buying rare pamphlets and manuscripts. Among the latter, I would point to an exercise book filled with poetry in James Guillaume’s own hand and some letters from Jean Grave (written during his incarceration in Sainte-Pélagie) to Octave Mirbeau and Camille Pissarro, an artistic and financial contributor to his ventures.

The indefatigable André Bösiger carried on visiting elderly comrades (I remember the Italian tailor Pio Martini and the French comrade Jean Carriat) and these in turn alerted him to the fact that some dead comrades had left stuff to widows who might well be willing (free of charge or otherwise) to hand over document collections. Manna fell from heaven when we ‘inherited’ the Gross-Fulpius Collection from Madame Elisabeth Gross-Fulpius who donated what she had left of her late husband’s (he had died 34 years before) (2) archives and library containing marvels in terms of correspondence (letters from E. Armand, Louis Bertoni, the Bonneff brothers, Lucien Descaves, Sébastien Faure, Luigi Galleani, Nella Giacomelli, William Morris, Max Nettlau, Elisée Reclus, Paul Robin, etc.) and collections of old newspapers such as La Révolte, Les Temps Nouveaux, L’Assiette au Beurre, Le Père Peinard, La Feuille, Le Révolté, etc.

The size of our collections then swelled considerably, thanks to contributions from abroad. We took over the CRIA (Commission de Relations de l’Internationale Anarchiste - Liaison Commission of the Anarchist International) records in the care of Ildefonso González in Paris, the records of the SPRI (Secrétariat Provisoire aux Relations Internationales - Acting International Liaison Secretariat) stored in Versailles by André Prunier Prudhommeaux, the records of the International Anarchist Commission (set up by the International Congress in London in 1958), the archives of Noir et Rouge held by Christian Lagant on the outskirts of Paris, the archives of Ernest Jouin, better known as E. Armand (an honorary member of CIRA, with whom I had been in correspondence from Italy since the 1940s) who was not happy with the Institut français d’histoire sociale’s treatment of the first few crates of documents handed over to it, the records of the regional committee of the CNT-in-exile in Paris, and so on.

These successes in France encouraged elderly Swiss comrades and we were soon able to launch the Frigerio Collection, the Bösiger Collection, etc.

We must not forget to mention the contracts (3) that we entered into at the time with other libraries in Geneva. We signed contracts with the Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire, the United Nations library and we were in talks with the Société de Lecture (a neighbour of ours). We encouraged researchers, locally based or from abroad, to consult our holdings by means of the inter-city loans scheme and to name only a few of or first ‘professional’ readers, we might cite Bert Andreas and Marc Vuilleumier.

We had enough room at the Rue des Granges premises to sort out incoming materials and I very soon had the help of a core of volunteer colleagues. Among these, I might cite a few such as: Alex ‘Sacho’ Alexiev, Christo Pavlov, Alain and Josette Lepère, André Bernard, Jean-Jacques Langendorf, Alain Thévenet, Marianne Martin, Claude Zveiger, Ivan Ivanov, Giovanni Gozzi, Jean-Pierre Krief - but I just know I’ve left some names out. From time to time, Marie-Christine made welcome visits from Lausanne (she had long since taken charge of the Scandinavian section and correspondence, translations and book reviews) and, even then, Marianne; together they were to become the ‘mother’ figures of the CIRA.

We were also having lots of courtesy visits from the inquisitive, students, journalists, members or future members (Armand Mastrangelo, Jean-Claude Favez, Adrien Muller, etc.) and passing comrades (Guy Bourgeois, Clément Fournier, Jean Ramay, Jean-Jacques Lebel, etc.) and honorary members like Carlos M. Rama, Helmut Rüdiger, Daniel Guérin and Albert Meister.

As we fleshed out our collections, we had them bound in Haute Savoie. I think it was Alain Thévenet who looked after that. Somebody came up with the idea of colour-coding according to language: this, we reckoned, would help us in the shelving of our books. We were forever busy unwrapping, classifying, translating, transliterating, answering correspondence, welcoming vistors and researchers, drafting the Bulletin, running off copies, copying addresses, stamping and closing envelopes, digging out articles, making photocopies, etc.

Some fifty years on, others who are most likely engaged in the same chores are doubtless facilitated by computers and available space. Conditions may have changed and there may have been changes of personnel, but of course the driving spirit remains the same: appreciation of am immense challenge of which none of us will ever see the completion.


1 If memory serves, we moved in February 1960.

2 A brief but effective outline of the life of this militant by Alain Thévenet can be found in the CIRA Bulletin of May 1962, pp. 16-17. An obituary notice is followed by a list of letters included in the archive.

3 The details are set out in the CIRA Bulletin No 2, autumn 1959, p.1

From: CIRA Bulletin No 63. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.