Five years of the Sparrows' Nest

KSL: Hello, comrades. What is the Sparrows’ Nest, and how did it get the name?

SN: We describe the Sparrows’ Nest as a centre for anarchist culture and education. It’s a semi-detached house in an area of Nottingham called St. Anns. We’ll call it the Nest for the rest of the interview – this name seems to have stuck. The Nest’s main project is its archive and library.

After we opened in 2008, the local press (Nottingham Post) wrote the following which was surprisingly accurate – since then we’ve had regular opening hours every week.

A new centre for anarchist education and culture has opened in Robin Hood Chase.

The Sparrows’ Nest is largely the work of local Anarchist Federation members, and was inspired by similar projects in Italy.

The centre is named after local anarchist publication The Nottingham Sparrow, which itself is a bastardisation of The Nottingham Arrow.

The library and archive hosts a large collection of material on anarchist theory, local struggles and workers’ struggles, with books and pamphlets including the old news publication St Ann’s News.

The centre aims to be generally open to callers soon, but in the meantime visitors are asked to contact the library on 07913 720136, or email and arrange to view by appointment.

Members of the public are also being asked to lend or donate material.

Two of our founders had been involved with producing the Nottingham Sparrow as a local AF paper and we had a spoof letters column “Letters to the Sparrows’ Nest” – note the apostrophe since there are multiple sparrows (real House Sparrows nest communally too, but we disgress…). The paper has not been published since the real Nest opened – it seemed like a natural thing to make a thing of fiction, real.

For the sake of completeness The Nottingham Arrow is a local council publication that is posted around the city to tell us how great the council is and seems especially to come around at election time, so is the kind of thing Eric Pickles would dearly like to suppress (our unitary council has been controlled by Labour for years and this is unlikely to change in the near future, but again, we disgress…).

Italy refers to the 40 year anniversary congress of the International of Anarchist Federations in Carrara. Some of us in the AF had gone to this and were impressed by the way the FAI (Federazione Anarchica Italiana) were so well received for their connection with living and past working class culture and had several venues in the city. Of course in Britain there had been anarchist social centres for many years (including the Sumac Centre in Nottingham) but we were inspired to start something more specifically anarchist communist, although the project has evolved since then and is politically broader to focus on material about social anarchism, of interest to anarchists, and by anarchists.

Several of the founders of the Nest had their personal collections of publications and archive material, including books, magazines, and various organisational documents, plus material from local and regional campaigns which we realised early on were a valuable record of activism and politics. These formed the early stage of the Nest collection and we have either added this to our general collection or kept personal collections intact dependant on the wishes on the donator. As well as books we have posters, stickers, CDs and video and various artifacts such as t-shirts, lighters and even (empty) beer bottles with an anarchist theme or relating to social struggles.

KSL: You’ve been going for five years now. What are you most proud of and what’s been your greatest challenge?

SN: We’ve had many challenges, not least cataloguing what we had at the beginning, which was a lot, when more and more was coming in. Thankfully after starting the Nest we managed to attract further hands and brains to work on the cataloguing and develop the collections. Over the 5 years we have been entrusted with such important collections as the Anarchist Federation archives, the personal archive of Ron M. (of the Solidarity Federation) and that of SolFed itself. Nick H. of the Anarchist Federation has donated a huge number of books and other important anarchist communist material from the 1960s and 70s. We have had many other small and large donations from individuals, and taken some material from the Sumac Centre as well. We are grateful to the people who have thought of us and suggested us to others. In part thanks to cross-over with the Peoples’ Histreh radical history group which we are also involved with, we fostered a really good relationship with an archivist at Nottinghamshire Archives who helped us with preservation (who told us we’d passed the first rule of archiving which is to keep the stuff the in first place!) We have since spent a lot of money and time getting hold of the right kind of archive boxes and on staple removal.

We have been pleased to have hosted talks by a great number of enthusiasts and experts (many self-taught) and covering such topics as local housing, poaching and the anti-poll tax campaign. The latter coincided with donations of two banners from the period and for which we scanned in bulletins and leaflets and press cuttings from the period (all on our website) and showed unique video footage. We have also hosted talks about specialist areas such as the Third Revolution. We have also hosted international anarchist speakers from Belarus, Russia and Slovenia as part of UK/European speaking tours or one-off visits.

We think we have carried out a pretty good cataloguing effort over the 5 years, and most recently started our Digital Library project which is a systematic approach to getting some of the more one-off and unique material scanned in and available online. Students and researchers have used material in the archive and in turn contributed to the digital library by leaving us the scans of documents they were studying.

We have also attempted to interpret the material ourselves – Ron’s archive in particular contains a treasure trove of correspondence (including carbon copies of letters sent from England) where we can find the Syndicalist Workers Federation asking about the effect on libertarians of the Cuban Revolution (sadly without reply) and find glimpses of day-to-day concerns of its members, with a good deal of wry humour. We have presented this material at various anarchist bookfairs which we hope some of your readers will have seen and found as interesting as we found it to be. At the London Anarchist Bookfair this year we will present more material from our archive boxes.

KSL: What recommendations would you make to people starting similar projects?

SN: We are aware of other library projects in Britain, some new and some that pre-date the Nest – early on we linked in to the Network of Radical Libraries and Archives (NORLA) and from this we have email contact with various people although network meetings have not taken place in recent years. A more organised way to share skills and where appropriate to exchange material between libraries would be useful.

As a key recommendation we’d say put a lot of effort into cataloguing; build a detailed database and keyword everything to make it accessible. The Centre International de Recherches sur l’Anarchisme (CIRA) in Switzerland has created a widely used database format which we’d have used from the start if we’d known about it. Also decide what you want to collect, tell people what you are doing and promote it with outreach activities. Ask for stuff as people don’t necessarily know what they have is worth keeping! We run a mailing list as well as the website where we write about our progress and we hope this all helps boost enthusiasm; it helps us too, to assess how we are doing.

KSL: How can people help you out, and how can they get in touch to use the library?

SN: Our website has contains contact details; email address and phone number are above; just email to get on our mailing list and to visit the Nest just phone first. We’ll happily accept donations of texts, documents and other artefacts and we’d be pleased to curate and look after further donations, either adding it to or keeping it distinct from our general collection. One recent collection we scanned in and gave back so this is also possible. We use a ‘40 year rule’ for material that could identify individuals which we apply to the digital library project; our full donations policy is on the website. Preservation does cost money; acid-and lignin-free boxes are really expensive! We have a few regular donations from organisations and individuals and we could definitely use more – see our ‘Spare a twig’ appeal on the website (Donations area) which includes bank details and a form to fill in. We are happy to discuss in advance any donation of material or funds. Thanks for this opportunity to tell your readers about the Nest; KSL publications and newsletters are part of our collection too!