United We Stand: Preserving the History of U.S. Labor: Labor Library Collections Prove That in Union There Is Strength. (Collections)

By Chepesiuk, Ron | American Libraries, January 2002 | Go to article overview

United We Stand: Preserving the History of U.S. Labor: Labor Library Collections Prove That in Union There Is Strength. (Collections)


Chepesiuk, Ron, American Libraries


Last June at the ALA Annual Conference in San Francisco, librarians from all over the U.S. joined local Bay Area librarians in three days of protest at the San Francisco Marriott Hotel (AL, Aug. 2001, p. 70-71). The librarians were there to support Local 2, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, whose members were protesting the hotel's opposition to unionization.

Many librarians attending the convention had to decide if they would cross picket lines at the Marriott to get to their meetings. For Fred Stielow, director of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit, the decision was a no-brainer. "I couldn't go to my meetings because the Service and Employees International Union [SEIU] had protest lines at the Marriott," Stielow explained. "Our library curates the records of the SEIU, so I look at myself as working for the union. I take very seriously the contractual arrangement our library has with the SEIU."

Shannon Sheppard, director of the Holt Labor Library in San Francisco, marched with the protesters, but she was also interested in the strike for another reason. "As an archivist, I knew history was being made, so I grabbed all the flyers and pamphlets I could get my hands on," she revealed.

Sheppard has added the items to the Holt Labor Library collection, and they now form a small but important part of the permanent historical record of the U.S. labor movement. "Most people involved in labor disputes and issues don't see the flyers they hand out as making history," Sheppard said. "So librarians need to be aggressive in preserving that documentation. Otherwise, there will be huge gaps in an important aspect of U.S. history."

The Holt Library is one of several U.S. libraries that share that philosophy and are working hard to preserve the history and legacy of the American worker. Their collections document a variety of important subject areas, including collective bargaining, labor studies and disputes, industrial relations, labor economics, labor-management relations, and the history of important labor legislation. Several libraries document a wide variety of subject areas; others focus on one or a few. Some house only books and serials, while others house manuscripts and other documents. The bigger labor libraries house thousands of linear feet of records; the smaller ones only own a few vertical file cabinets and the odd manuscript collection or two. Some of the larger repositories operate with a specialized staff, while the smaller ones are staffed by overworked lone rangers.

American Libraries surveyed five labor libraries to get a sense of the variety and richness of the labor history collecting and preserving experience.

Keeping an even Kheel

The Kheel Center for Labor Management and Documentation and Archives is one of the country's leading archives of industrial and labor relations. Founded in 1949 at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, as the Martin P. Catherwood Library's Labor-Management Documentation Center, the Kheel Center is part of Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, which offers the nation's only full four-year undergraduate program in industrial and labor relations.

To curate its extensive holdings of 204,736 volumes, 4,236 serials, and more than 813 manuscript collections totaling 17,482 linear feet, the library operates with a staff of four professional archivists and the equivalent of three full-time support staff.

"We have documentation that extends back to the colonial period, but the bulk of our collections are from the 20th century," said Richard Strassberg, director of the Kheel Center. "Our role is to collect materials relating to all aspects of American labor, with special emphasis on New York state."

The Kheel Center holdings include 13 international unions, an extensive collection of rare books and pamphlets, the personal papers and reminiscences of 260 prominent individuals in the labor movement, and 300,000 photographic images that vividly depict the history of industrial and labor relations in North America, with special emphasis on the needle trades. …

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