Question of the Month
From the Catherwood Library reference librarians
PLEASE NOTE: The Reference Question of the Month is kept current only during the month for which it was written. Archived questions will not be updated, and over time may contain inaccurate information or broken web links. We provide archived questions as a service, since much of the information will remain accurate and of continued interest to the ILR community.
Question: Can you direct me to online sources of labor art?
Answer: Songs, posters, cartoons, newsletters, and other forms of labor art provide unique and important cultural and historical insight into the labor movement. There is a growing interest in preserving these unique historical objects and many libraries and museums have begun projects to digitize their collections to improve access to patrons and for preservation. There are a number of sites that include online labor art, but because digitization of these primary sources is in its infancy, it may take some research and searching of sites to find what you need.
A good place to start is LaborArts, which is described as a virtual museum that gathers, identifies, and displays the cultural artifacts of working people and their organizations. Their mission is to present powerful images that help us understand the past and present lives of working people. The site features a Sample Exhibit.
LaborArts.org includes a quote from AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, who has urged all international unions to cooperate in locating labor art, "the treasure trove of cultural objects that have moved workers into action from the very inception of our movement." The AFL-CIO website features a page dedicated to labor art at http://www.aflcio.org/aboutaflcio/history/art/index.cfm.
The Labor Heritage Foundation works to strengthen the labor movement through the use of music and the arts. Their site includes a directory of labor artists and musicians, a catalog of labor music, books, art, and video, and an Inventory of American Labor Landmarks - a catalog of sites in the United States commemorating the history and heritage of America's workers.
The American Memory Historical Collections, from the Library of Congress, are multimedia collections of digitized documents, photographs, recorded sound, moving pictures, and text from the library's Americana collections. The site can be searched by subject or key word, and includes WPA Posters, films about America at work, and more. Of particular interest is the images in the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection. During the Great Depression, the project emphasized rural life and the negative impact of the Depression, farm mechanization, and the Dust Bowl. In later years, the photographers turned their attention to the mobilization effort for World War II. There are over 160,000 black and white and 1,600 color photos available.
The Institute of Industrial Relations (IIR), Berkeley displays online selections from their permanent collection of poster art and photographs covering a broad range of inspiring and educational labor themes. IRR's Library has a large collection and extensive resources for labor art. They offer an online guide to Labor Culture, which includes links to sources of song, film and video, visual art, and more.
Lincoln Cushing, the Electronic Outreach Librarian at IIR is "committed to documenting, cataloging, and disseminating socially and politically significant graphic material which otherwise might be left behind in the digital revolution." Among other projects, he is documenting and cataloging contractor sidewalk stamps as a way of preserving those artifacts that are, "symbolic of the pride that tradesmen and women displayed in building our country." For additional information on the project and to view examples, please visit the Sidewalk Contractor's Stamps Page.
He has also written a Proposal for Inclusion of Union Label Description In Bibliographic and Archival Cataloging Guidelines, which includes a brief history of union printing and use of the Union Bug (identification mark used to designate union label), along with examples and a list of sources.
If you are looking for labor art associated with a particular historical event, it is worth researching individual libraries and museums as they often feature online exhibits dedicated to specific events in labor history. For example,
The Kheel Center, Catherwood Library, features an extensive online archive of the Triangle Fire.
The Anarchy Archives includes graphics on the Haymarket Massacre.
The Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, The Great Flint Sitdown Strike.
The Center for Labor Education and Research, University of Hawaii Western Oahu, The Great Hawaii Dock Strike.
The Center for the Study of Political Graphics collects, preserves, documents, and exhibits domestic and international posters relating to historical and contemporary movements for peace and social justice, including the labor movement. Their site features an archive of online exhibits, including: Viva la Huelga! Graphic Heritage and Legacies of the United Farm Workers.
Sites can also feature online exhibits on various labor subjects. For example,
Solidarity Forever - Graphics of the International Labor Movement documents a labor poster exhibit produced by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (Los Angeles, CA).
Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, has an online exhibition: Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops 1820-Present.
Southern California Library for Social Studies & Research documents and preserves the history of labor, women, communities of color, peace, civil liberties, civil rights, and other progressive movements in the greater Los Angeles area. They hold the photo archives of the California Eagle from the late 1890s to the late 1950s.
Music and song is of particular importance to the labor movement and there are several sites working to preserve and make available the sounds of the labor movement. The Art and Music and the Labour Movement Site, seeks to restore art and music to the labour movement. Site features lyrics, audio files, and artists whose music and performance are based in the history of unions and labour struggles.
Photography is a traditional and important element of labor archives and there are several sites that focus on events and artists.
The Tamiment Institute Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, NYU, "Sam Reiss: Eyewitness to Labor History", Often referred to as "labor's photographer," Sam Reiss used his camera to capture historic events that shaped American labor.
The Pacific Northwest Labor History Photographs of Workers, Strikes, and Unions has more than 100 online labor history photos from Seattle's Museum of History and Industry Collection.
If you are looking for work by a particular artist, the site Graphic Witness is a good place to start. It is dedicated to social commentary through graphic imagery by artists working from the turn of the 20th Century to the present, with related bibliographic and biographic data. The artists are listed alphabetically, by era (pre 1950 and post 1950).
Labor Archives & Research Center, San Francisco State University, makes available online selected images from the Labor Archives & Research Center's Photograph Collections.
Other sites have limited images available online (often as examples of their collections). A few are:
Archives Service Center in the University Library System at the University of Pittsburgh.
Milwaukee Urban Archives at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
American Radicalism Collection of the Michigan State University Library.
Labor and Industrial History Manuscript Collection Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Penn State University Libraries' Historical Collections and Labor Archives (HCLA), official repository for the historical records of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA).
*Since the initial writing of this question we have had some queries about purchasing labor art, particularly posters. We've included a few links below to online sellers of labor art.
Northland Poster Collective is dedicated to promoting a socially just world through the use of art. They create, find, distribute and encourage art that will make a positive contribution.
The AFL-CIO offers an online Union Shop which provides labor themed and union-made-in-the-USA products.
Inkworks Press in Berkeley CA offers a selection of labor posters.