Radical Library (Philadelphia)

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The Radical Library was an Anarchist library, cultural center, publishing house and school which was active in Philadelphia during the early 20th century. In addition to publishing and distributing radical literature, the Library also sponsored weekly lectures and offered a Sunday school for children. The library had about two hundred members, mostly but not exclusively Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants. Among the key organizers involved with the library were Anarchists such as Joseph J. Cohen.


Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, Volume 2

From notes to Candace Falk (2008), Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, Volume 2: Making Speech Free: 1902-1909, University of Illinois Press. 459n3.

3 The Radical Library was initially affiliated with the Ladies' Liberal League of Philadelphia, when the League joined the Radical Library around 1895. Guided by Voltairine de Cleyre and her friends, the Radical Library worked to "repair a deficit in the public libraries by furnishing radical works upon all subjects at convenient hours for working men and accessible to all at only a slight expense." In 1905, after the Ladies' Liberal League disbanded, Philadelphia anarchist Natasha Notkin, who had been the caretaker of the library, passed the books on to Joseph Cohen, a former student of de Cleyre's. Cohen started a new group, which settled at 424 Pine Street. The newly reconfigured Radical Library, led by Cohen, became an established center of Philadelphia anarchism. In 1906 the Radical Library and the Social Science Club sponsored a Paris Commune commemoration, at which Voltairine de Claire, George Brown, Frank Stephens, Chaim Weinberg as well as French and Italian anarchists spoke.

Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices (1995)

From Paul Avrich, interview with Morris Beresin (November 28, 1971), in Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America AK Press, 1995/2005). 223.

I [Morris Beresin] became a dental technician and joined the Radical Library, which had been organized near the beginning of the century. It had about two hundred members, mostly Jewish with a few Italians and Russians. They were largely garment workers and tailors, some of them from the London East End, as well as cigar-makers and a few construction workers (painters, electricians). There were also teachers, librarians, and students. It was a cultural as much as a political organization. It sponsored lectures (every Sunday, in English) and forums, had a Sunday School for the children, distributed literature, and published books and pamphlets, including Joseph Cohen's history of the Jewish anarchists in America. The majority were moderates, engaged in propaganda work, but we had a small minority of militant revolutionists, including Marcus Graham.
The leading figure was Joseph Cohen, a cigarmaker by trade, who served as the group's librarian. He and Harry Kelly and Leonard Abbot, who often came down from New York, formed a sort of troika and were dedicated to the Modern School movement. Will Durant of the New York school also came to speak. His Story of Philosophy is an outgrowth of lectures delivered over a two-year period in New York and Philadelphia. Other speakers included Rudolf Rocker, Charles Dana, Harry Overstreet, and Chaim Weinberg (called "der folksredner" [the people's tribune]), who held the audience's attention with his humor and treasure of anecdotes. George Brown, from England, was another able speaker.

From Paul Avrich, interview with Harry Melman (November 28, 1971), in Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (AK Press, 1995/2005). 223-224.

Harry Melman and his wife Celia were members of the Radical Library Group in Philadelphia, which in the early decades of the century boasted a Modern Sunday School and a summer camp (Camp Germinal), both attended by their daughter Ethel. When I asked for any relevant documents, Celia produced the membership ledger of the group, now housed in the Avrich Collection of the Library of Congress. An hour or so later, as I got up to leave, Harry had an idea. Reaching into the hall closet, he extracted a group of old photographs, among them a striking one of the pupils and teachers of the Sunday School, dating from 1910 or 1911. "M'ret un m'ret un m'shushketsakh," said Celia (We talk and talk and remain silent). Harry died on July 10, 1974, at the age of eighty-five.
I [Harry Melman] emigrated to Philadelphia in 1910, before Voltairine de Cleyre left for Chicago, but I knew no English then and have no recollection of her talks. I don't remember Samuel Gordon, Nathan Navro, or Joseph Kucera. I do recall Natasha Notkin, who was friendly with Chaim Weinberg, but that's all I remember. Voltairine de Cleyre was a member of our Workmen's Circle branch, the Radical Library. In 1911, at the meeting at the branch at 424 Pine Street, Joseph Cohen read us a letter from here from Chicago, asking us to make a collection for the Mexican revolutionaries, and we sent her a hundred dollars.
The Radical Library was composed mostly of garment workers, cigarmakers, teachers, and construction workers. It became a branch of the Workmen's Circle in 1909. Around 1910, it organized a Modern Home and School Association, whose aim was to build a Ferrer School for our children and also so women could be free to work. The plan was never realized, but we did have a Sunday School and later a summer colony, Camp Germinal, in Jamison, Pennsylvania, about thirty miles north of the city. It lasted until 1934. Our daughter Ethel was there. Anarchism was not specifically taught at the camp, but a libertarian atmosphere prevailed. The camp had a children's theater, organized by Richard Gilbert [q.v.], and lectures for adults by Will Durant, Rudolf Rocker, and others.

From Paul Avrich, interview with Emma Gilbert (September 23, 1974), in Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America AK Press, 1995/2005). 226.

[Lexington Avenue bombing suspect Michael] Murphy talked to Dad and Sasha. I am convinced that neither my father nor Berkman had known what these boys were up to. But to protect Murphy, Dad brought him out to Leonard Abbot's picnic in Westfield, New Jersey. Before leaving New York he called Harry Melman [q.v.] and other comrades in the Radical Library in Philadelphia to meet him at Westfield. He delivered Murphy to them at the railroad station. Murphy was a very suggestible and simple boy, and they feared he might be used by the police. He was kept in Philadelphia for a while, then taken to England by way of Canada. He wrote to Father from England shortly before the Second World War asking, "Is it safe for me to come back?" Dad gave a double-take when he read that, and figured that if he had to ask such a question after all that time he had better stay there, so he answered no. The people at the picnic weren't told about Murphy, but they had probably heard about the explosion. It was all kept very quiet.