Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Visit with Curtis Lyons, Director of the Catherwood Library, Cornell University

Curtis Lyons has a three-line title on his business card: Harriet Morel Oxman Director of the Catherwood, Hospitality, and Management Libraries at Cornell University. I’ve abbreviated it a bit for the title of this entry, but suffice to say, the man has a very big job. A genial fellow, he has a wonderful Tennessee lilt that can be heard as he speaks about the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives at the Catherwood. In late July, he generously gave me a tour of the archives and talked with me at length about the history of the collections and the importance of Kheel Center projects now underway.

About the Library and Archives
The Catherwood Library serves the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) at Cornell University. The ILR school was opened in 1946 as an effort to help management and labor set aside their differences and work together to train union and management arbitrators. The Kheel Center was opened in 1949 as the Labor-Management Documentation Center, and was renamed in 1996 to honor New York City arbitrator Theodore W. Kheel.

The Center’s holdings include approximately 23,000 linear feet of paper, audio, video, film, electronic records, textiles, buttons, ribbons, and other objects. In the photo below, in the middle shelves, you can see garment workers unions' banners preserved in archival wrapping.

From Cornell Visit July 2011

Most of the banners have been digitally photographed and can be viewed in color here.

The archivists collect primary source materials about American labor unions, management theorists, and arbitrators and negotiators. Alumni in unions have helped to persuade their unions to preserve their records by giving them to the Kheel Center. The most popular collections are the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and Ted Kheel’s papers. Curtis points out that the Center holds “almost all of the U.S. garment workers’ unions records,” allowing the archivists “a unique opportunity to give access to the history of an industry that was a cornerstone of the economy for decades. It also allows researchers to track the migration of jobs first within and then outside the United States.”

The ILGWU is a very large collection (more than 2,500 linear feet) in process. In a move away from the More Product, Less Process methodology, Cheryl Beredo was hired as the ILGWU Project Archivist to process the collection on a very deep level. She also is describing it in detail to help researchers learn more about this very progressive union. For instance, the union provided housing and healthcare for its workers, which means that researchers studying inner-city housing could use these records to learn more about the topic. A short piece by Cheryl Beredo will be appearing in this month’s Archival Outlook, and I'm looking forward to reading about her work with the collection. Soon, the Kheel Center will launch a preliminary web site on the ILGWU records, including digitized photos from the files. But, until then, you can view many of her finding aids on the ILGWU here.

The collection with the greatest impact on patrons so far has been the Triangle Factory Fire. An online exhibit on the fire should not be missed. The site commemorates the centennial of the fire (March 25, 1911) that killed 146 mostly immigrant workers in a sweatshop in lower Manhattan. It is extensive, to say the least. Visitors can view historical narratives, letters, testimonials, photos, and much more. “We hear many, many stories from people who are overwhelmed by the material we have on our web site. High school kids who realize many of the victims were their age, descendants of victims, witnesses, [and others] see the connections between this tragedy and eerily similar tragedies happening right now in Asian sweatshops,” says Curtis.

The materials at the Kheel Center are processed, described, and maintained by 5 full-time archivists, 2 full-time staff, and 1 part-timer. Below is a photo of the well-sized processing room.

From Cornell Visit July 2011

The Kheel Center is patronized by Cornell students and faculty, academic and independent researchers, high school students and teachers, and documentarians. Although they see 5-10 visitors a week, the Center’s staff works to a large degree with off-site researchers. Next to the visitor’s reading room is a large enclosed area where some of the digitization takes place and where many of the paper-based records were previously stored. In the short video below, Curtis talks about the move to digital records and what it means for this space.

Although most of the collections are too “young” to be digitized and made available due to copyright concerns, the Kheel Center is posting some photographs on the Labor Photos site and on Flickr. The Center’s list of EAD finding aids may be viewed here.

About Curtis Lyons
Prior to becoming Director of the Catherwood Library, Curtis was Head of Special Collections and Archives at Virginia Commonwealth University for 9 years. Previously, he was at the University of Tennessee (UT) Special Collections and Archives for 10 years first working with their manuscripts and later the University Archives. Like many of the archivists I have met during my tours, he “fell into” the field of archival science. “I got a job at UT Special Collections as an undergraduate, used it to fund my graduate degree in history, and along the way decided that I liked archival work more than I would like to teach,” he explains. His favorite part of the work is “vicariously sharing the ‘Ah-ha!’ moments with researchers.” Curtis continues, “Playing a teeny-tiny part in the creation and discovery of the world’s knowledge,” is one of the many ways that his work at the Kheel Center is rewarding.

Contact Information
Kheel Center
227 Ives Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-3901
(607) 255-3183

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I was sorry to have missed you when you were at Cornell! This is probably the easier link to use, if anyone is interested in the ILGWU records:

Cheryl Beredo