Mutual Aid LibGuide

- Pamphlets


This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.

by Alex Crowley


As communities reel from the effects of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus and systemic faultlines deepen class and race divides, one activity that ordinary neighbors can engage in to build bonds and transform their surroundings is the practice of mutual aid. Mutual aid has a long, obfuscated history in the United States, as it has largely been the province of labor radicals and immigrant communities trying to survive the exploitation of capitalism. The last five years have witnessed a resurgence of unabashed Left political action, and the current pandemic has opened new ground upon which to put theory into practice, all in service of healthy social transformation.

Unfortunately, a significant portion of the current material on the history, theory, and practice of mutual aid is transmitted via social networks or is locked away in archives and databases only accessible through institutions of higher education. In an effort to ameliorate this situation and help bring mutual aid practices back into popular consciousness, this guide aims to educate both librarians and library patrons on basic concepts of mutual aid, as well as how to find potential new avenues of research and action. Libraries are a core community institution through which community members should be able to discover material that is pertinent to community-building. As such, this document intends to serve the library-going public.

The following outline engages with resources available through library services or basic web search tools. It begins with general reference materials, moves to specialized reference materials (some of which are only accessed through the library, while others are freely available online), transitions to online reference materials, and concludes by looping back to journal and newspaper articles primarily available through library-accessed databases. Though the explicit aim of this guide is to make the practical aspects of mutual aid more available and understandable to wider circles of people, such material does not comprise the bulk of what is shared here. Indeed, the vast majority of what can be found through library services deals with the history of and theoretical underpinnings of mutual aid. To a great extent these aspects cannot be separated, nor should they be—the history and theory behind mutual aid should inform its practice, and its practice should continually update theory and history.

General Reference Volumes

General encyclopedias are often a starting point for research on an unfamiliar subject, but they may not be the best places to begin searching for material on the history of mutual aid or guidance on its practice. It can be difficult to find any such general work with even an entry for the term “mutual aid.” However, a good encyclopedia may steer users toward related concepts or persons with a relationship to the topic, and thus provide users with new ways to search for the materials they seek. For example, if a user searches for “mutual aid” in the online Encyclopædia Britannica, they will be directed toward the entry for Peter Alekseyevich Kropotkin (Avrich & Miller, 2020), whose works Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (Kropotkin, 2019) and The Conquest of Bread (Kropotkin, 2005) are core texts in the theory and history of the practice.

Dictionaries are not likely to prove helpful in this particular instance, either. For example, though Merriam-Webster’s definition of mutual aid as “reciprocal aid and cooperation as among men in social groups” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.) is reasonably accurate, it offers no other useful information on how people could find out more on the topic or its real-world applications. Still, it is helpful for newcomers to the concept to recognize its basic contours.

Specialized Reference Volumes

Specialized encyclopedias, in this case predominantly from the social and environmental sciences, are able to provide information seekers with greater depth on the subject. In the Gale Ebooks database, a basic keyword search for “mutual aid” returns 222 instances of its appearance in an array of reference volumes and textbooks. This database allows a user to filter results by subject, and if one selects the option with the most tags, “Fraternal Organizations,” it will yield 35 results. The majority of these are entries on the historical role and practices of mutual aid societies of the type that were found in the United States prior to the creation of a welfare state, which co-opted and institutionalized the practices of such societies (Khalid, 2006; Tayag, 2014).

Another result of this subject filter, an entry in the Encyclopedia of Environment and Society, focuses on the relationship between the sociological content of the term in light of its applications in biology (Wasky, 2007). This result also appears if a user instead applies the subject filter “anarchism,” perhaps having noted previously the prominence of place that mutual aid has in this ethos. A user will also find under this subject filter an entry in the Encyclopedia of Community on “anarchism” that lays out the ways mutual aid practices inform and underpin the anarchist notion of community. Meanwhile, an entry on “anarchist geography” from the International Encyclopedia of Human Geography introduces readers to numerous new names to search beyond Kropotkin, including Elisée Reclus and Murray Bookchin, and also notes the ways that anarchists urge “the need to build relationships upon a foundation of reciprocity, accountability, reflection, and sustainability” (Breitbart, 2009)—all characteristics that the practice of mutual aid is intended to foster.

Moving over to the Oxford Reference database and searching for “mutual aid” returns nearly 100 reference entries. Filtering this yield according to the “subject reference” type returns 70 items in such disparate fields as history, biography, medicine, human geography, and critical theory, among others. One notable volume, A Dictionary of Sociology, contains material related to mutual aid in four separate entries: anarchism (Scott, 2014a), class consciousness (Scott, 2014b), images of society (Scott, 2014c), and solidarism (Scott, 2014d). Kropotkin appears again, unsurprisingly, but so do many mentions of historic war pacts and specific practices in Canadian national history that have no bearing on the purposes of this search. Refining instead by the subject “social sciences” filters out much of the extraneous medical information.

Nevertheless, even in these specialized volumes where one does find a standalone entry for “mutual aid,” the information provided tends to list it as a type of content representative of some larger phenomenon, rather than as a phenomenon with its own specific form, content, and expression. So while one may find in these venues mentions of mutual aid as part of a social or cultural practice, a clearer picture of what such a practice entails or sustains fails to emerge. To understand better the form and content of mutual aid as it is understood and practiced in the present day, one must turn away from academic forms and institutions toward subcultural and underground archives and materials maintained by advocates and practitioners themselves.

Until the time comes when libertarian socialist practices are seen as commonplace or even banal, information on the theory, history, and practice of such an ethos must be sought out in the corners where people are already attempting to live it. This can pose a problem for librarians, who are accustomed to seeking out information through established “LAM” institutions: libraries, archives, and museums. So how are librarians supposed to find information in such unorthodox places? Fortunately, given the kind of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethic practiced by participants in underground and subcultural Left milieus, archives of this material exist through collectively maintained digital archives. These DIY archives exist as special libraries in their own right, dedicated as they are to hosting and sharing many otherwise difficult-to-find materials produced in and of the long libertarian Left tradition. Three notable English-language archives in this vein are the library (, the Anarchist Library (, and the Memory of the World library (

It is the first two of these libraries that will be useful here, as they both host text documents in forms other than books. At the time of this writing, does not have a functional library search bar. However, a visitor can navigate to the “Tags” function and from there use the index to search topics by first letter. Clicking on “M” opens a list of subjects that includes “Mutual Aid.” This returns one item, a pdf of a helpful pamphlet called Mutual Aid: An Introduction that covers the basics of mutual aid practice and is free to reproduce and distribute (Sparrow, 2020). The core principles of mutual aid practice are presented as follows:

  • Nobody is disposable. Every life is precious. Everybody deserves love, care, and access to the means of survival.
  • We are the experts on our own lives. Through mutual aid, we support and empower one another to create the lives we want to live and the world we want to see, right now.
  • We share what we have with whoever needs it, rather than accumulating unnecessary extra things for ourselves.
  • We build relationships with those around us based on mutual trust, respect, and shared need.
  • We value all contributions and recognise that people have different abilities, skills, and needs. From tech support to emotional support, from childcare to food provision— everybody has something to contribute.
  • We are radically inclusive and meet each other where we are. Charities and government institutions set up means-tests and barriers to access; mutual aid is open to all and based on deep trust.
  • We offer our help freely, without conditions or obligations.

The pamphlet also provides tips for starting up what some call “pods,” which are the building blocks from which larger networks can develop. Pods often form organically among friends and neighbors, though a collective reading and discussion of one of Kropotkin’s books could also form the basis of such a node, as has often been the case in libertarian socialist circles. One of the key points made in this handbook is that “The point of mutual aid is that it responds to the needs and abilities of the people who are doing it. This means it will look different for everyone” (Sparrow, 2020). This goes some way toward explaining why there is plentiful material on mutual aid history and theory, and far less in the way of how-to instruction.

Continuing to search the library, the recognition that the practice of mutual aid often develops organically in times of crisis or disaster could lead a user to select “D” in the index and head to the “Disasters” tag. Here, anyone interested in a deeper theoretical engagement with the topic of mutual aid could read the three-part series from the Out of the Woods collective called “Disaster Communism,” which takes a “look at the concept of disaster communism as it relates to the communities of solidarity and mutual aid typically formed in disaster situations” (Out of the Woods, 2014). This particular series of essays serves as a critical inquiry into how the sustaining aspects of mutual aid can form the foundation of a transformative set of social relations. Yet, without any prior knowledge that this latter document exists it is likely that it would remain in an undiscovered state by a site user who is accustomed to exploring an archive in a more systematic manner.

Unlike the library, The Anarchist Library has a full text search function that includes a few mechanisms for filtering and sorting returns. Conducting a keyword search for the terms mutual and aid mostly yields results on anarchist theory and history, without much in the way of practical guidance, save for a text that outlines a particularly risk-intensive variant called “Insurrectionary Mutual Aid” (Curious George Brigade, 2009). A recent article from U.K.-based author Jim Donaghey (2020) outlines the place for mutual aid organizing in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, offering links to organizers in the U.K. and a plethora of footnotes that may lead an info seeker on fruitful subsequent searches.

Alternatively, if one alters the keyword search by adding the additional term network and placing the three terms together within parentheses, a new set of results materializes. The texts “Community, Democracy, and Mutual Aid: Toward Dual Power and Beyond” from the Symbiosis Research Collective (2017) and “A Communalist Assembly Starter Kit” from the Usufruct Collective (2018) both situate the practice of mutual aid within a broader strategy to foster radical new social forms and develop tools for autonomous self-governance. But what may be of most interest to those seeking practical information is the transcript of an “Interview with Two Anarchist Nurses in New Orleans” (Crimethinc., 2020). The two nurses interviewed speak on various ways that mutual aid initiatives can be undertaken by anybody and pose critical questions for those who are engaged in such initiatives. This document is also valuable for being pertinent to the unusual contexts of organizing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Free Internet Reference Sources

General web searches may end up yielding the most fruit to those looking for practical guidance on the matter. The most obvious place to begin might be the Wikipedia page, which in addition to being informative on the basics also provides an excellent set of related names and terms that may come in handy when utilizing search engines or exploring academic databases. Given the inconsistent nature of’s search functionality, it can be productive to conduct a web search using the terms “” AND “mutual aid.” This search should return some of the aforementioned texts, notably the Kropotkin and Sparrow texts, as well as others from and fellow-travelers in that milieu. One of the top search results is a “Mutual Aid Syllabus” from the Big Door Brigade (2019), a site maintained by Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and a notable proponent of mutual aid. Big Door Brigade’s website ( also features two full pages of resources under the headings “What Is Mutual Aid?” These pages collectively contain an array of videos and links, as well as helpful examples and descriptions. From Big Door Brigade’s site one can travel directly to Dean Spade’s personal website (, which is another trove of valuable resources, particularly the “Mutual Aid Chart” posted on the site’s news section (Spade, 2019). Much of what is presented on these two particular sites echoes what Sparrow’s mutual aid pamphlet offers to readers. This may not be incidental, either, as many on the libertarian Left encourage the free transmission of ideas via the copying and sharing of texts, asking for little more than noting original attribution in return.

For web searches to bear fruit consistently, however, seekers must learn how to distinguish the useful from the distracting. Conducting a general web search for “mutual aid manual” often returns materials produced by government agencies or departments, or by for-profit corporate bodies such as utilities providers. These should be looked at warily, as the definition of “mutual aid” being employed by state or capitalist bodies explicitly differs from the principles elucidated above, and does not account for or include principles of solidarity or autonomy. Rather, these bodies are invested in a recuperation of the status quo that existed prior to the crisis or disaster to which they intend to respond. At the same time, that search likely also yields Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK (, which is an independent group of volunteers providing resources to an unaffiliated network of local mutual aid initiatives in the United Kingdom. This search also returned a link to a full-text pdf of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid (Kropotkin, 2019), which as mentioned above is a valuable asset for any budding mutual aid project, though is not by any means a practical manual.

Thinking back to the index search for “disasters,” one could conduct a similar search on the web, adding the terms disaster relief to the term mutual aid. This should return a top result for Mutual Aid Disaster Relief (, which according to the site is “a grassroots disaster relief network based on the principles of solidarity, mutual aid, and autonomous direct action.” This site is a tremendous asset for any group in need of resources, assistance, and real life examples. Scroll on through the web search results and seekers are likely to encounter the website for a mutual aid network in Richmond, VA, ( and the transcript of an interview of Dean Spade and Roberto Sirvent on the Black Agenda Report (2020). Again, a little creativity with search terms can open up new and unexpected avenues of information flow.

Electronic Journal Articles

Once a knowledge seeker has begun to get a footing in the subject, perhaps even putting theory to action as member of a pod, it may be useful for them to return to the academic sphere, where they can consult relevant literature on ways that mutual aid has been practiced in the real world and find critical evaluations of its practice. Utilizing the Queens College library’s OneSearch system, a basic search for “mutual aid” returns more than 67,000 items. Refining those results in an advanced search by adding a command to search for “sociology OR anthropology OR geography” trims the list to a more manageable 2,000 items. Second in line behind Kropotkin is a doctoral dissertation titled “We Work, We Eat Together: Anti-authoritarian Mutual Aid Politics in New York City, 2004-2013” that appears to fit the bill, judging by the title and an abstract that claims the work analyzes “anti-authoritarian mutual aid groups that blend Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture with direct action politics” (Spataro, 2014). Here again it can be seen that for Spataro, mutual aid not only serves as a means to keep neighbors together in tough times, it is also a foundational element of a politics “of total immersion where all layers of social relations are meant to enact an alternative to capitalism.”

Altering the subject command to “community organizing” yields a tight list of 11 items that at first glance may shed light on the topic from useful angles. A journal article that analyzes the efficacy of mutual aid practices within a sector of gig economy workers in Indonesia (Ford & Honan, 2019) may be of interest to those curious about whether mutual aid succeeds in certain aims. And a book called Constructive Anarchy: Building Infrastructures of Resistance (Shantz, 2010) analyzes anarchist practices, including mutual aid initiatives, through a series of relevant case studies. But deeper examination of the list disappoints, in that for most of them the term “mutual aid” appears merely as a reference point rather than the subject of investigation.

JSTOR delivers over 27,000 results with a “mutual aid” search, which under most circumstances would be a call for refinement. However, the top few returns are each book chapters that merit a further look and, more importantly, all display a topic tag of “mutual aid” for further exploration. Clicking through to this topic page reveals something unexpected: the top results from the previous page are no longer among the top results here. One must scroll the list a short ways to find Jim Mac Laughlin’s book Kropotkin and the Anarchist Intellectual Tradition (2016) or Ruth Kinna’s Kropotkin: Reviewing the Classical Anarchist Tradition (2016), as well as a book intriguingly titled Living at the Edges of Capitalism: Adventures in Exile and Mutual Aid (Grubačić & O’Hearn, 2016). The results continue in this vein—sometimes it pays to have patience when confronted with a returns list that does not immediately catch the eye.

Relevant Newspaper Articles

Finally, there is the matter of finding newspaper articles or similar journalistic accounts on the topic, as these types of materials can be useful as primary source data for further study or simply a curio of current practice that caught a journalist’s attention. Utilizing Nexis Uni to search newspaper coverage of “mutual aid” during the period of January 1, 2020 to May 1, 2020 and according to the subject filter “Trends & Events,” the database returns approximately 1,100 articles. Several articles document the establishment of mutual aid networks at or near such academic institutions as Stanford (Chua, 2020) and the University of Texas-Austin (Arredondo, 2020). A New York Times opinion piece urges community members who are feeling powerless during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis to get involved with initiatives in their neighborhoods, tracing how four friends near Boston, MA, formed a pod that blossomed into an extensive network (Warzel, 2020). An article from The Independent remarks upon the proliferation of mutual aid networks across the U.K. in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, noting by name the Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK network mentioned above (Forrest, 2020).

A shift in the search parameters to look more at the last decade’s history of “mutual aid” in “disaster relief” efforts returns about six hundred articles. One may take note of a 2018 article in Newsweek about the anarchistic tendencies of mutual aid organizers in Puerto Rico who mobilized in the wake of Hurricane Maria and were eventually threatened by the police for their efforts (Dilawar, 2018). After sifting through articles on various state aid functions, an article from the Tampa Bay Times highlights the difficulties faced by local organizers to send goods to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria (Capriel, 2017).


The profusion of texts cataloged above is hardly exhaustive, yet it could keep an individual reading for months, if not much longer. It should now be clear that in the process of discovering useful texts on the meaning and practice of mutual aid, one is bound to hit snags and outright dead ends. One thing that should be kept in mind for anyone pursuing this line of research is that mutual aid is by definition a collective endeavor. This goes without saying for neighbors collaborating to get food and medicine to other neighbors during a crisis, but it also applies to the process of gathering information to share within and between mutual aid pods. Libraries often emphasize the lengths to which they will go to foster an individual’s quest for knowledge and self-improvement. While that is a noble goal, there is still much that they can do in the name of communitarian ends. At a time when a global virus pandemic has created conditions where people are discouraged from meeting face-to-face and in which more information than ever must be shared between people online, learning almost by default becomes a community activity. When this crisis subsides and people are again able to meet in person, perhaps libraries can engage in some form of mutual aid themselves in the ways they approach communal and collective learning opportunities.


Arredondo, A. (2020, April 28). Student-formed Mutual Aid Collective raises funds, hosts policy talks. The Daily Texan: University of Texas - Austin.

Avrich, P. & Miller, M.A. (February 4, 2020). Peter Alekseyevich Kropotkin. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved May 2, 2020, from Alekseyevich-Kropotkin

Big Door Brigade. (2019, August, 29). Mutual Aid Syllabus. 08/29/first-draft-of-mutual-aid-syllabus/

Breitbart, M. M. (2009). Anarchism/Anarchist Geography. In R. Kitchin & N. Thrift (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Elsevier.

Capriel, J. (2017, October 5). Relief supplies wait for delivery. Tampa Bay Times.

Chua, E. (2020, April 3). Mutual aid as radical hope. The Stanford Daily.

Crimethinc., (2020, April 8). Interview with Two Anarchist Nurses in New Orleans. https://

Curious George Brigade (2009, June 11). Insurrectionary Mutual Aid. The Anarchist Library.

Dilawar, A. (2018, September 21). Puerto Rican 'anarchistic organizers' took power into their own hands after Hurricane Maria. Newsweek.

Donaghey, J. (2020, April 13). ‘It’s Going to be Anarchy’ (fingers crossed): Anarchist Analyses of the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic crisis. The Anarchist Library. https://

Ford, M., & Honan, V. (2019). The limits of mutual aid: Emerging forms of collectivity among app-based transport workers in Indonesia. Journal of Industrial Relations, 61(4), 528– 548.

Forrest, A. (2020, April 8). More than 4,000 'mutual aid' set up across UK to help struggling neighbours. The Independent - Daily Edition.

Grubačić, A. & O’Hearn, D. (2016). Living at the Edges of Capitalism: Adventures in Exile and Mutual Aid. University of California Press.

Khalid, R. (2006). Mutual Aid Societies. In C.A. Palmer (Ed.), Encyclopedia of African- American Culture and History (2nd ed.). Macmillan Reference USA.

Kinna, R. (2016). Kropotkin: Reviewing the Classical Anarchist Tradition. Edinburgh University Press.

Kropotkin, P. (2005). The Conquest of Bread. (Original work published 1906)

Kropotkin, P. (2019). Mutual aid: A factor of evolution. The Anarchist Library. (Original work published 1902)

Mac Laughlin, J. (2016). Kropotkin and the Anarchist Intellectual Tradition. Pluto Press.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Mutual aid. In dictionary. Retrieved May 3, 2020, from

Mutual aid (organization theory). (2020, April 22). In Wikipedia. aid_%28organization_theory%29

Out of the Woods (2014, May 8). Disaster Communism Part 1 – Disaster Communities. 08052014

Scott, J. (2014a). Anarchism. In A Dictionary of Sociology (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Scott, J. (2014b). Class Consciousness. In A Dictionary of Sociology (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Scott, J. (2014c). Images of Society. In A Dictionary of Sociology (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Scott, J. (2014d). Solidarism. In A Dictionary of Sociology (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Shantz, J. (2010). Constructive Anarchy: Building Infrastructures of Resistance. Taylor & Francis.

Spade, D. (2019, December 4). Mutual Aid Chart. mutual-aid-chart/

Spade, D. & Sirvent, R. (2020, April 1). BAR Abolition & Mutual Aid Spotlight: Mutual Aid Disaster Relief. Black Agenda Report. mutual-aid-spotlight-mutual-aid-disaster-relief

Sparrow, J. (April 18, 2020). Mutual Aid: An introduction. library/mutual-aid-introduction

Spataro, D., (2014). Earth Environmental Sciences. We Work, We Eat Together: Anti- authoritarian Mutual Aid Politics in New York City, 2004-2013 [Doctoral dissertation, City University of New York]. The Graduate Center, All Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects (2014-Present).

Tayag, E. (2014). Mutual Aid Societies. In C.E. Cortés & J.E. Sloan (Eds.), Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia. SAGE Reference.

Usufruct Collective. (2018, December 15). A Communalist Assembly Starter Kit. The Anarchist Library. assembly-starter-kit

Warzel, C. (2020, April 12). Feeling Powerless? Join A Mutual-Aid Network. The New York Times.

Wasky, A.J. (2007). Mutual Aid. In P. Robb (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Environment and Society. SAGE Publications.

West, T. R. (2003). Anarchism. In K. Christensen & D. Levinson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Community. SAGE Reference.