When Freedom updated its website back in October I took the opportunity to start a side project I've been meaning to do for a while - digitising Freedom's newspaper back catalogue. Herein some notes which are a bit internal-bloggy to put on the news site ...
Originally founded in 1886, Freedom Newspaper has collected a lot of epithets over the years, most famously "the longest-running anarchist newspaper in the English language." While it's no longer a regular publication we're still printing it twice a year at the moment alongside the website, as a free journal, so it's (sort of) into year 132 of its existence.
As such, while many other (sometimes significantly better) publications have come and gone, there's long been a focus on Freedom as sort of a "paper of record" for the movement, and it's had a lot more attention than most with archives being retained by many major institutions such as big universities, the British Library, the Bishopsgate Institute etc. The existence of the Freedom building also, until the clearing of the attic to make room for the Advisory Service for Squatters in the 2000s, meant a room had been kept aside for a slightly patchy archive of our own.
The existence of all these paper copies however had not translated well into the digital age as of last year, with only small numbers of the earliest and most timely papers getting scanned and uploaded, other than via volunteer projects such as the Sparrows' Nest. Partly this is down to the anarchist movement in Britain being relatively overlooked by major institutions, which in any case usually hide their vast store of pdfs behind paywalls, and partly due to our own resource limitations as a movement - libcom itself is a very good example of the sheer volume of work that has been and continues to be produced, and it's astonishing we manage to save as much as we do given the vast majority of digitisation and archiving efforts are volunteer labour.
But with the existence of such a wealth of unique background on the movement's activities in the 19th and 20th centuries in particular, Freedom's function as an (imperfect) gateway to our past is potentially an important one. And a certain urgency has been lent to getting the project of making it freely available underway, as our own remaining paper archives aren't in great shape.
Most of Freedom's original copies were decamped to Bishopsgate during the ASS move as a better and more caring home, but the library kindly got a spare set bound and boxed for us covering the period after 1920. In 2013 however an arson attempt was made on the ground floor, six feet away from where we were keeping the boxes. The subsequent damage can be seen in the above image, and we were extremely lucky that most (though not all) of them survived. While our physical copies remain mostly intact for now, the burned edges in particular are, inevitably, disintegrating, so getting the oldest of them scanned while they are still easily available in relatively good nick is a priority.
Once started though this is the sort of project that lends itself to obsessing over completionism, and there's little point in repeating work already done. Various sites including the Nest, libcom, archive.org and sundry random special interest websites have done selections of their own over the years, and bringing those into the main body of the Freedom set has also been going on alongside the physical scans.
At the time of writing, 821 (July edit: 1,134) issues are up including at least a couple from every decade. Most of those have also been optimised and put through a machine reader, so can be copy-pasted, though due to the sheer volume going up they've not been copy edited. With that many now online I've been able to do a back-of-an-envelope calculation on roughly how many issues have been produced to date (I say roughly because some issues were dropped or brought out irregularly):
1886-1932: (457) issues
1936: 47 (Spain & The World), 6 (Revolt)
1939-45: Monthly/Fortnightly 118 (War Commentary)
1945-51: Fortnightly (113)
1951-61: Weekly (675)
1961-71: 40 per year (400) + Monthly Anarchy (118)
1971-75: Weekly (200)
1975-82: Fortnightly (154)
1982-90: Monthly (468)
1990-2011: Fortnightly (504)
2011-14: Monthly: (36)
2014-present: 7 or 8
Totalling around 3,180 (minus any missed/compounded issues), making the project a little over a quarter (third!) of the way there.
Given the remaining archives in our possession, I or someone else should eventually be able to put up much of the rest of the 1960s-90s from our own stores, but pre-1950 is a problem, relying on what other people are prepared to help out with. War Commentary in particular we have no copies of at all in the archive, which is a big gap across an important period.
One thing which has become abundantly clear through doing this project though is that there is a fascinating story to be told in a great deal more depth about post-war anarchism in Britain and the wider world. Going through early 1950s pages, even at high speed, points to a tiny, depressed movement being dominated by the ascendant Communist Party, at least until Hungary '58 marked the decisive turning point in their own fortunes. But in among the list of no more than half a dozen member organisations initially linked to the Union of Anarchist Groups was a highly-motivated, capable set of people who would in many cases go on to make important contributions.
Seeing the slowly accelerating buildup of momentum towards the tumultuous 1960s and 70s, particularly in the peace movement to which Freedom was generally more attached than workers' struggles, is a worthwhile read and something of a tonic for perspective in times when it seems the modern movement is struggling to coalesce.
Edit: Updated with more accurate count of papers as I found a proper count up to 1986 in a magazine writeup from the time.