Interview with Alan MacSimóin of the Irish Anarchist History Archive

Q: Can you give us a brief description of the project, say what the idea behind it is and how it started?

A couple of us were talking last year about how our history should be preserved, and decided that our contribution would be making available an online archive of magazines, pamphlets, papers and books from and about anarchist organisations in Ireland, from their early beginnings in the 1880s through to today. If we don’t record our own history, who will?

We hope it will be a useful contribution towards developing a history of anarchism in Ireland, and will be a help to those researching our movement’s politics and activities. We also hope that it will help interested people to understand the various tendencies and currents within Irish anarchism. Additionally, it provides an opportunity to consider how the same themes recur again and again and how both problems and solutions may have been already identified and arrived at.

We started by collecting together the material we already possessed, got a wordpress blog, and went online last October.

Q: I’ve noticed you’ve tried to provide background information about the magazines you’ve put up, the groups that produced them, and what they’re discussing. Presumably you’re as keen to share the knowledge you have as well as merely show the documents?

There is a big difference between a magazine with 100 readers and one with 10,000, or one that published two or three issues and one that published for twenty or thirty years. Circulation and lifespan can give us some idea of how popular or influential a paper was. So, we try to give that sort of background information where we can be sure that our information is accurate.

We provide pdfs of the original material rather than just the text of articles, as the physical look of a publication can give an added sense of the times.

It’s not a ‘one way street’ where readers just read. We encourage our readers to use the ‘leave a comment’ facility to add more information, share memories or talk about the politics of the publications we post.

Q: If someone was thinking of doing something similar, what advice would you give them?

Anyone with access to a scanner and a PC can do it. What is important is that any information given is accurate and not just guesswork or hearsay.

There are all sorts of possibilities, for instance you could aim for a collection of material by and about anarchists in your town, your union, your college, or in a particular struggle.

Q: Can you briefly tell us how you do it?

It’s not difficult. We learnt how to do the technical stuff within a few days, mainly by trial and error. The scanner we use is a cheap home model we picked up in Tesco and the basic blog is free. There are just two of us at present and we spend a couple of hours a week doing it.

Now that we have been up and running for a few months readers have started to send us pdfs of almost forgotten material they had put away in attics and under beds. This week we even received one from a comrade in Australia.

Q: What resolution are you scanning at? And are you saving images as jpegs, or scanning straight to pdf?

We scan straight to pdf at a resolution of 300ppi (pixels per inch). However if anyone has advice on a method that maintains image clarity but uses less memory we’ll welcome it. We are not technical wizards, so keep any suggestions very simple.

Q: You have lots of periodicals waiting to scan, and you’ve also put up some ephemera. How long do you think it will take, and what further plans do you have for the project?

Yes, we have lots of material to scan and post, including complete and almost complete runs of Workers Solidarity, Red & Black Revolution, Irish Anarchist Review, Anarchist News, Outta Control, RAG, Black Star, Antrim Alternative, Ainriail (both the Belfast and Frontline Collective versions), Black Rag, Anarcho-Communist, Resistance (all three versions), Organise!, Solidarity Bulletin, No Masters, Working Class Resistance. Also pamphlets, leaflets, stickers and more.

We are also tracking down very early stuff like the interview with Kropotkin in the Freeman’s Journal (the main daily newspaper of the day) in 1887, and the Irish language translation of at least one of his books in the same period.

It’s an endless project as one interesting find often leads to another, and our movement keeps producing new publications. Also the mainstream press over years has had news reports and letters, ranging from the good to the stupid to the downright dishonest, and that continues. Just recently the Irish Examiner described one Workers Solidarity Movement person as a member of the Irish parliament!