Session 409: Laboring for Access: Rearing Records in Labor Archives

Session 409: Laboring for Access: Rearing Records in Labor Archives
Guest author Meghan Courtney


Catharine Powell, Director, Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University


Alexandra A. A. Orchard, Metadata and Technical Archivist, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Liz A. Novarah, Curator of Historical Manuscripts, University of Maryland

Deborah Rice, Audiovisual Archivist, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Traci JoLeigh Drummond, Archivist, Southern Labor Archives, Georgia State University

Kate Donovan, Public Services and Instruction Librarian, Tamiment Library, New York University

Chair Catharine Powell explained the goal of the panel was to address the idea that labor, as well as labor records, are the domain of the “Pale, Male, and Stale.” Do female archivists affect access to labor records differently from male archivists?

-In 1956, SAA was roughly 67% male, while in 2004 membership was 65% female. What impact does this have on the profession?
-There are not many peer-reviewed articles that study female archivists’ work.
-The idea of neutrality in stewardship must be consistently questioned.

Powell asked panelists “Does being a woman archivist impact your approach toward male-dominated labor collections? How so? Does your approach change if there are more/less materials related to women within a collection?”

Orchard: As former SEIU Archivist, it’s notable that the unions’ members are largely women now, but a lot of the materials cover male-dominated time of the union and relate to male leadership. SEIU has a reputation for being a relatively diverse union, but as the archivist she does choose to highlight the contributions of women because otherwise it’s impossible for researchers to know that that evidence is there.

Rice: The Reuther is the largest labor archives in the U. S., so it collects male-dominated unions like the UAW but also female dominated unions like AFT, SEIU, AFSCME. She may have shied away from UAW, and other highly documented, male-dominated unions, maybe subconsciously. But researchers are interested in civil and human rights issues and those are naturally part of the story of labor. And at the rank and file level, women are a larger part of that story than might be reflected in official records.

Is that because of researcher requests?

Rice: Yes and no. Both research interest and personal choice on her part.

Do you relate to the women represented in the collection? (Many of the labor women in collections were in male-dominated unions, and while archives is a female-dominated profession, in terms of having leadership/stewardship, it still tends to be male-dominated.)

Drummond: Deans and bosses in her experience have mostly been women, and although she does report to men currently, she sets her own collection policy. Georgia State is the official Machinists/Aerospace Workers repository, and those unions only included women later than some. They’ve also absorbed unions like the CWA, which has more female members.

Donnovan: She relates to the collections more as a working person than a woman. Many of the collections detail “women’s issues” such as pay equity, which speaks to her experience as a woman who is also a worker.

Traci: She also relates to her collections having come from a working-class background.

Has female stewardship of labor collections created a female gaze upon these collections? If so, has this changed the thinking towards or the actual process of caring for and making these collections accessible? In other words, has gender factored into archival methodologies, and subsequently impacted the collections’ accessibility?

Novarah: Yes and no. Female gaze is less necessary, less relevant, than a feminist/women’s studies/women’s history framework through which to view the materials. She noted that yes, “gender can and should factor into archival methodologies.” She expects that her duty to work within archival standards means that processing is the same whether male or female archivists do it.

Rice: Archivists like to see themselves as passive, but one can’t be completely impartial.  Rice is an activist archivist, and can’t really turn that off. Union history embodies the history of working people in the United States – it’s all connected.

Orchard: This type of work, in the end, is helping to diversify the existing archival record.

Rice: The Reuther has 7 archivists working with specific unions’ collections, and 2 of them are men. In a total staff of 15, 6 are men.

Donnovan: Tamiment’s staff is also largely female, and many of the records collected come from female-dominated labor groups. They have recently reassessed some of their deeds of gift, collection titles and creator names to better reflect women’s contributions to existing collections.

How do you balance ensuring access to women within labor collections with the fact that there is often not much material about women within labor collections? Do you have concerns that by highlighting women-centric materials, that the historical record is being unintentionally skewed, modified, or misinterpreted by making it seem like women played a larger role than they did? Or, is this mitigated because the women likely played a larger role than is documented, or it is simply worth this risk/outcome because women within labor collections need to be made accessible, etc.?

Rice: None of this is fabricated – it’s all in the records. Highlighting notable contributions from rank and file union members is important, and it’s doing a service to researchers.

Orchard: Even smaller contributions from women are more noteworthy because of the context of those actions. Women have historically been relegated to the private sphere, where they are doing organizing work but more behind the scenes.

Rice: So we are looking at how we get to those private sphere records. It should be noted that of roughly 1500 collections at the Reuther, only 73 are returned in a search for “women in the labor movement.”

Drummond: Do you think women are reluctant to donate their materials?

Rice: Yes. Women often functioned as facilitators, not leaders.

Novarah: Collections were created by male-dominated administrations that may have already stripped women’s contributions from the record, so it’s important to pursue women’s sub-groups such as “Women in the Brotherhood,” in the Carpenters’ union.

Each of the panelists then addressed a specific topic, represented in bold below.


Rice: When prioritizing, being an archivist comes first, so one focuses on ethical best practices. Rice doesn’t use “women’s history” as a processing priority per se, but does highlight collections that are currently undiscoverable.

Q:Does this have an impact on deaccessioning?

Rice: Looks at labor history with a broader stroke. If women’s personal records are kept more frequently than men’s it’s because they contain information that isn’t documented elsewhere. That does sometimes affect arrangement. For example, an accession came in under just the husband’s name, but a lot of the material was specific to the wife and since she had an existing collection the material was processed there.


Orchard: Does consider it a personal goal to increase access to evidence of women in labor. It’s there, but there’s a gap. That’s why Orchard spent time making sure the SEIU District 925 collection is accessible, as it documents efforts to organize largely female workers.

Q: Do you see digital technology and description as a tool toward that end?

Orchard: Yes, because so much of women’s contribution to labor is more easily found outside of traditional manuscript formats. For example, Orchard worked to augment SEIU’s image galleries on the Reuther website to illustrate women working, protesting, leading, etc. She also made oral history transcripts and born-digital speech transcripts available online. Similarly, she worked to add subject terms such as “women in the labor movement” when applicable and added women’s names to metadata fields. She does hope that access to women in labor collections is strengthened as we shift into more complete use of EAD/Archives Space.

Outreach and Instruction

Donnovan: Realistically, women are hard to find in labor collections. Donnovan tries to highlight gender as well as race and sexuality. The Tamiment works with the History Department at NYU, and Donnovan serves on the History Program Committee in order to have access to graduate students looking for dissertation topics. She also lectures in a seminar about women writing women’s lives. The students are surprised to learn what’s at the Tamiment, even when they know how to use a finding aid. She wants students to understand that collections are a reflection of the time in which they were assembled so they can deduce what might be missing. The idea of neutrality much be challenged, but we should be transparent about our archival practice. If we hold back information about what we do, we hide the materials. To that end, she lectures about how archivists get titles, creator names, etc. in the hopes that students will be able to read archival data critically. She also hopes to communicate that certain formats are more likely to contain evidence of women’s contributions.

Reference and Research

Novarah: Many people looking into the Carpenters’ materials are genealogists or local administrations looking for old contracts. Carpenters, of course, have a reputation for being pretty “pale, male, and stale.” Novarah tries to keep original order whenever possible to minimize influence, but this results in gaps. The union asked for a photo of the first female member, and when she checked her biographical files she noted how heavily male they were. Only 2 files had women. In current/future collecting, she hopes that highlighting groups like “Women in the Brotherhood” will help tell a more complete story. Currently, she has to rely on collections about women’s auxiliary groups or creative searching.

Oral History

Drummond: Calls this “The great equalizer.” Oral Histories can be so important to women’s impact on collections, but they’re also not perfect. After all, they’re memories. Try to find support for events in the manuscript record.

The Voices of Labor Oral History Project documents roughly 45 leaders, although only 5 include women and just 3 of those are women speaking about their experiences alone. She finds that many women are unwilling to talk about the hardships they faced in mostly male shops because they try so hard to fit in or get along. Noted that only women ever ask her “Is it okay to say this?” in an oral history interview.

Audience Q and A:

An audience member is a steward at Yale and wonders how she might go about starting a collection about organizing there. What gaps might be found, and how can she address those?

The panel suggested filling in the 1990s, looking for photographs of events and meetings, and pursuing digital materials.

An audience member noted that outreach for these records can also be successful with social scientists and anthropologists of work.

An audience member asked if anyone is collecting materials related to archives work and the labor issues related to a contracting field and increase in underpaid, part time work?

There was no answer to this. A statement was made about NEA collections at George Washington University before it could be addressed.


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