The Kate Sharpley Library: What and Why

What we do

A library is much more than books on a shelf. There's a structure to it as well as mere volume. There are books, of course, but once you've got them you have to house them, preserve them and make sure you can find them again. And then, beyond the shelves of books are the drawers of pamphlets, and the cabinets of newspapers, and the boxes of manuscripts, and the piles of ephemera…

There's always plenty of jobs to be done and never enough hours in the day for what you could read. If you soak up knowledge from the atmosphere, you do it very slowly. The stuff you get a chance to read is either the stuff you can't resist or 'What is this shit?' That's part of the joy of being a research collection: good or bad, excellent research or journalistic drivel is not relevant in the end. Is it a study of or propaganda for Anarchism? is it by an anarchist? is it an ill-informed hatchet-job on Anarchism? Then come on in. Even the shit will make somebody's roses bloom. The time comes that you bless the comrades who only had time to be anarchists and not write about jazz… or flowers… or warlocks… A lot of time is taken up with trying to understand what you're holding in your hand. Do we want it, where will it go, have we got another copy? Usually easy with a book. Harder with a flier in Polish. And of course, books, pamphlets, newspapers and articles all need to be catalogued and everything joins the queue to get filed.

Why we do it

But because it can be hard work and because some of it is rubbish from the pens of lying bastards doesn't mean that we don't love doing it. We do this to preserve and promote anarchist ideas and anarchist history. Not in a vague and fuzzy 'learning is good' kind of way, but because if we don't do it, who will? Signed first editions of Memoirs of a Revolutionist will always find a home. There'll always be someone willing to explain Stirner's debt to Hegel; but none of that really touches what we think anarchism or the anarchist movement is. We respect Kropotkin, but don't think of him as a prophet, let alone a god. Anarchism is the sum of years of struggle of thousands of comrades. Ideas are honed in argument, and in practice. You can call the idea of a world without oppression and exploitation the beautiful ideal, like the Italians did, but it's not an ideal for passive contemplation. Working in the library sometimes gives you a very strong sense of the human reality of that movement. Some of these books have escaped the government bonfires of totalitarian Germany and Russia and 'democratic' America. In them you can follow the ties of comradeship: a bound volume of a paper, representing ten years of struggle, is passed on to the new generation…

What we've done

So, what are our achievements? Number one is that we're still here which is both obvious and also quite surprising. With a budget of nothing beyond what comrades give us or we contribute ourselves, the library has expanded and been organised into a working thing. And the expansion hasn't just been new books but also reaching back and gathering rare and obscure material. To the best of our abilities (remember, this is a volunteer operation) we deal with the enquiries that come our way either through access to material, photocopying or good old-fashioned advice.

As well as teaching ourselves how to operate a library we've also learnt to be publishers. Our bulletin goes around the world, serving up some of the short pieces we've rescued from old newspapers, manuscripts and memoirs. We've also published many pamphlets, returning forgotten accounts to the notice of today's comrades, or shining new light on events ignored or misrepresented by the 'experts'. And we've helped to bring out books like Guerin's No Gods No Masters or the reappraisal of The Friends of Durruti Group by Guillamon. For many years now (we're on our fourth website) we've had an internet presence. This includes an online version of our bulletin: a handy resource for those who know us and a good way of reaching interested people who don't know us yet. Publishing makes more work and paper work, but it also promotes both the Kate Sharpley Library and the idea of Anarchism.

So, with the help of our friends - who sort, shelve, write, type, read, review, edit, design, donate or translate - we keep working on the library. Here's to twenty five more years preserving and promoting Anarchism.