By Margot Willis, Labor Collections Volunteer
In 2013, the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) donated the entire holdings of the George Meany Memorial Archives to the Special Collections and University Archives Department of University of Maryland Libraries. This collection contains the most important documentation of the history of America’s largest federation of labor unions, founded in 1955. Comprising over 20,000 linear shelf feet of a wide variety material, including documents, photographs, audiovisual materials and artifacts, it represents the single largest donation of archival material to the University to date.
Until this summer, the artifacts portion of the AFL-CIO collection had gone almost entirely untouched by university archival staff due to other higher priorities. Packed away in the same bubble wrap and cardboard boxes in which they were transferred to the University three years ago, the AFL-CIO artifacts sat in out-of-the-way corners of Hornbake Library.
Back in April, when I first spoke with University of Maryland Labor Archivists Jen Eidson and Ben Blake about a possible volunteer project over the summer, I mentioned that I have an interest in museum studies, and would like to learn more about the care and organization of artifacts in an archive. Because they needed immediate help in verifying identifications and locations of AFL-CIO artifacts in anticipation of an upcoming exhibit and due to the fact I was willing to work for free, they granted my wish and set me to work.
I worked wherever there were boxes, which happened to be in the very bottom and the very top floors of Hornbake library. Oftentimes, the spaces I worked in were very small, and the boxes very large.
Originally, the plan was for me to go through the boxes, locate each object in the original Meany Archives inventory of over 2500 records and enter the object’s new location in Hornbake. However, after about five minutes on the job, it became clear that the project would be a bit more complicated than that. There were items in the boxes that were not on the spreadsheet. There were items whose accession numbers appeared on the spreadsheet but whose descriptions did not match the items. There were boxes of dozens of items inside other boxes that had not been recorded as being there. The original inventory indicated that some boxes contained certain items, which, upon further examination, were not there at all. In other cases, boxes should have had only one object, but ended up containing six.
As most of the archivists whom I spoke to told me, these sorts of unexpected conundrums are everyday archival occupational hazards. So, as the project continued, Jen and I redefined what I was doing from a purely location-based project to a full collection survey, focusing on location, but taking stock of the entire artifact collection, its location, organization, and metadata needs. Particularly as the Special Collections Department prepares to migrate its collections information into ArchivesSpace, a new online collections database, taking stock of the AFL-CIO Archive from a wide lens is important. Even the improved metadata we now have about the AFL-CIO Artifact Collection will need additional cleaning up before it will be ready for ArchiveSpace, a project that will last for far longer than one summer.
In addition to learning about the AFL-CIO Archive, the Special Collection’s archival collections database, and ArchivesSpace, I picked up some secondary skills over the course of this project, including:
- Reading accession numbers through multiple layers of bubble wrap
- Handling a box cutter with minor incident (yes, even archivists need first aid kits)
- Reading other peoples’ handwriting upside down
- Box Tetris
- Shuffling gigantic poster tubes that have only about 1 inch of clearing from the ceiling
- Unpacking boxes in such a way that I can actually remember how to repack them – this skill I adopted only after I spent the better part of an hour trying to fit two World War II helmets back into their box.
Aside from these practical if not unexpected lessons, I also got to learn about the AFL-CIO’s history and the life and accomplishments of some of its presidents. In many cases, I was the first person from UMD to see the artifacts unpacked in several years. Of the hundreds of items I looked at during my seven-week stint in Hornbake, there were a few pieces in particular that caught my eye.
After Jen helped me get settled in working in the basement, the very first item that I unpacked turned out to be one of the (in my opinion) coolest. It was an audiotape recording, with a 1969 dinner with President Nixon on one side and the Apollo 11 mission to the moon on the other side. Several weeks later, I came across an equally interesting, related piece, a signed photograph of Buzz Aldrin appearing at the 1969 AFL-CIO convention.
I knew very little about the AFL-CIO coming into this project, and it was a fascinating experience to slowly piece together the history of the organization and its leading members as I sorted through the hundreds of convention-related memorabilia, badges, buttons, and hats. The personal effects of the presidents could be especially informative about their legacies and personalities. The legacy archive’s namesake, George Meany, president of the AFL from 1952-1955, then AFL-CIO from 1955 to 1979, was an especially recurrent character. He had quite the reputation in the political world, and the AFL-CIO Archive has several delightful cartoons depicting his stubbornness on Capitol Hill:
Meany was also known for his love of smoking cigars, so I had a bit of a laugh when, during my last week of work, I came across one of his Cuban stashes:
However, perhaps my favorite piece that I discovered over the course of this project, predated Meany by several decades and came from the late 19th century shortly after the founding of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a predecessor organization to the AFL-CIO. The artifact is completely in the spirit of what the Labor Collections represent.
Although it’s certainly seen better days and is in some need of restoration, this document is a resolution from the 1892 U.S. Congress, restricting the federal workday to eight hours. It is one of the oldest pieces of U.S. labor history that I had a chance to see during my work in Hornbake, and in my opinion, one of the most important.
This summer, I was only able to start this collection survey, but it will be completed this fall by a new Graduate Assistant. Overall, I enjoyed my summer at Hornbake learning more about the archives, the AFL-CIO, and perfecting my box shuffling skills. Hopefully, I have contributed to improving the organization and description of the AFL-CIO Artifacts Collection so that many of these historically interesting items can be selected and displayed in future exhibits.
Margot Willis is a second-year graduate student at UMD, where she is pursuing two masters degrees in Medieval and Early Modern History as well as Library Science. She is a Graduate Assistant at the University Career Center at ARHU, and hopes to graduate with her MLS and MA in December of 2018 to pursue a career in the museum field.