Based in Nottingham, the Sparrows’ Nest is a key archiving project for the literature of the British anarchist movement. Freedom talks to the collective.
Could you say a bit about how you got started and what sort of things you collect?
We started in 2007 after visits to libraries and archives in Europe which have emerged out of the “social anarchist” tradition. We wanted to establish something of a high standard in Britain for historians of anarchism, activists and anyone just interested in finding out more. We started with our own private archives and the works of key anarchist thinkers, and built from there helped by generous donations and cost-price purchases from Freedom, AK, Active Distro, Kate Sharpley and other anarchist publishers. We now curate the archives of the Anarchist Federation and Solidarity Federation and their previous incarnations. Large parts of our collections have been entrusted to us by people in the movement who have often spent years or decades building up collections and approached us to look after them properly and make them accessible.
We have almost complete runs of publications by important historical groups/papers such as Anarchy, Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists, Freedom, Class War and Black Flag, and left-communist groups such as Solidarity, Subversion, Wildcat, Workers Playtime and Careless Talk. We also have thousands of pamphlets, little-known journals, etc.; snapshots of what anarchists have been thinking and getting up to since the 1940s. We hold significant collections of publications which flourished in the late 1970s and 1980s, such as punk fanzines and the papers of local anarchist groups.
These sorts of materials are available to anyone in our public archive. We also carefully “keyword” items and annotate the catalogue entries to make it easier for people with particular interests to search.
As well as this, we hold hundreds of books and radical papers relating to struggles in our area, working closely with the People’s Histreh project in Nottingham.
What have been some of your most important additions? And your favourites?
The most important would be those which are uniquely preserved, such as internal documents relating to some of the groups above. We are particularly fond of the archive of the Syndicalist Workers’ Federation because of how seriously it took the preservation of its own internal documents.
Other favourites would include what appears to be an original of issue one of a key anarcho-punk fanzine, Kill Your Pet Puppy, which we will digitise soon. We will always be very attached to Issue 38 (1964) of Anarchy, which took Nottingham as its theme and connects us to local legend, the late Ray Gosling (who gave a notorious lecture at the Nest), and which we which put back into circulation in the city by reproducing it.
What’s involved in the digital archive you’re building, what are you prioritising?
There are already a couple of thousand documents available online in our Digital Library. We prioritise things which are unique and unpublished, not digitised elsewhere, which we use as part of our own personal research, and which are falling to bits. We are always happy to be led in our digitisation efforts by the requests of visitors. Much of our Digital Library has been built up after someone was doing some research and we digitised items for them.
How is the project organised?
We are a small collective of five or six people with support and advice from various others, are funded entirely by small donations from individuals, and from the Anarchist Federation and Solidarity Federation for our work for them, and would like to involve other people who get what we are doing.
We would like to be able to open more regularly and do more outreach work. Most of all, we want to work with people who are pursuing their research projects. We have realised that people often simply don’t know just how much is actually possible and how much we have to offer. We would also like people with specific knowledge to help us curate and interpret our holdings, e.g. contributing to the data stored in the catalogue as they are working with the documents. People have also used documents for art exhibitions and even found old protest songs to inspire whistling choir compositions.
In 2018 we are organising more events (meetings, talks, discussions as well as displays) given that it will not only be our tenth anniversary, but also the other anniversary of big historic events, so we want to organise events e.g. regarding critical interpretations of suffrage (1918, 1928), or the events and repercussions of the movements of 1968. So, please join our mailing list to find out more, and even better, offer to come and give a talk and give us an excuse to display lots of related materials.
There is something else of importance to say about anarchist archives. Projects like ours aren’t just set up by book nerds or people avid about anarchist history and ideas (although we are all of these things!). The point is to provide a platform for the contribution of ideas, examples and experiences to the future. To help our movement access materials which it can use to shape the future.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Freedom Anarchist Journal