July 27, 2011

UW Libraries new digital portal opens state Labor Archives for deep research

News and Information

The pages were pounded out on yellow second-sheet typing paper in the spring of 1920 by a man who called himself “Agent 106.”

He acted like a union organizer but he wasnt one — he was one of two spies hired to infiltrate Seattles growing labor movement in the wake of the general strike of 1919. He was hired by and reporting to Broussais Beck, manager of The Bon Marche department store, and this was his final report.

The new Labor Archives Digital Resources Portal, created by UW Libraries staff and students.

UW Libraries

The new Labor Archives Digital Resources Portal, created by UW Libraries staff and students.

“For over a year I have been assigned to do this work, and in this length of time I made great progress in being able at all times to get correct information on all plans and actions of the Labor Movement,” Agent 106 wrote with professional pride. “My source of information was always the leading members of organized labor of Seattle.”

Read his findings yourself online if you like. His observations are viewable via the new Labor Archives Digital Resources Portal created by UW Libraries staff and students. The new portal leads to hundreds of photos, articles and other ephemera about the history of labor in Washington state. The archive itself was a partnership between UW Libraries and the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies.

To be specific, Agent 106 and his stiffly anti-union reports are not officially part of the union-funded Labor Archives themselves, but part of a related collection gathered to the portal by its creators, one of several related collections.

The new portal is the work of three people in particular: James Rosenzweig, a graduate student in the Information School (who has now graduated); Kris Kinsey, who supervises digitizing projects for UW Libraries; and Conor Casey, a labor archivist for Special Collections. Also, Angela Rosette-Tavares of Special Collections acted as technical interface designer for the project, giving the website an interesting look.

Casey said what the portal really does is “make these collections that are hidden in boxes accessible to a broad public … It furthers the mission of being a democratic portal and letting people see the treasures of our collection without being an expert in searching archival collections.”

The website is divided into five main categories:

Rosenzweig said the portal came about largely because of  “a coincidence of two events.” One was his joining Special Collections as a student assistant helping Kinsey with digital projects and looking for a large project he could see through to completion. The other was the hiring of archivist Casey by the Libraries and the Harry Bridges Center.

“So we had an energetic new member who we knew was anxious to connect with the community and promote the kinds of materials that are here in Special Collections and help to support the work that people like Jim Gregory are doing.”

He said the archive embraces many topics, including the influence of the I.W.W. — also called The Wobblies — as well as tensions between labor and the business community and even among those people and groups supporting unions.

The final report by Agent 106, one of two men hired by Bon Marche store manager Broussais Beck in 1919 to spy on pro-union groups.

UW Libraries Special Collections

The final report by Agent 106, one of two men hired by Bon Marche store manager Broussais Beck in 1919 to spy on pro-union groups.

Casey said he developed the selective criteria and overall vision for the portal while Kinsey “oversaw the actual nuts-and-bolts of the project.” He and Kinsey both credited Rosenzweig with ultimately making the project a reality.  “It was his enthusiasm and meticulous work on the project that brought it to fruition,” Casey said.

Kinsey praised Rosenzweig as being “dedicated, diligent and focused” in pulling together the makings of the portal, adding, “We treasure our students.”

She called the portal “a fabulous advertisement for the types of material that Special Collections has, put together in a format that people can access. And it really reveals the depths of our collections.”

And by the way, theres much more to the portal than merely the anti-union musings of Agent 106. Rosenzweig also offered the example of a 1939 letter from journalist Anna Louise Strong to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt that mentions the publication of John Steinbecks populist masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (“a tremendous novel which I beg of you to read”) and comments on the tentative health of labor in Washington: “This state, however, really seems to me a great emergency; it will either be the spearhead of New Deal victory in 1940, or the center of New Deal collapse.”

Gregory, professor of history and the Harry Bridges Endowed Chair of Labor Studies, who has studied and written extensively on labor and civil rights issues, had high praise for the project:

“From the General Strike of 1919 to the WTO Battle of Seattle in 1999, labor activism has been a big part of Washington state history. The new Labor Archives of Washington State is preserving that history and now the digital portal is making key materials instantly available. Hundreds of fascinating photographs and rare documents are just a click away. This is, I am pretty sure, one of the largest digital archives of labor materials anywhere. It also maybe the best designed and easiest to use.

Gregory added what labor supporters statewide might well say about the portal: “Bravo! This is an extraordinary resource that will be appreciated by scholars and also the general public.”