Finding Iowa’s hidden genealogical treasures:
Iowa Labor Collection
State Historical Society of Iowa
402 Iowa Avenue
Iowa City, Iowa 52240
Three of us met with Mary Bennett, Special Collections Coordinator and long-time staff member who has worked with this collection since the beginning. The project began in 1974 at the time of the nation’s bicentennial. People realized the need for saving the rich historical heritage of Iowa’s working class people. As a result, more than 1,100 people were interviewed on audio tape. The people represented 75 occupational groups and 15 major urban areas. Of these 769 interviews were completely transcribed and entered into an index. The original transcripts were microfilmed and copies are available at the SHSI facilities in Iowa City and Des Moines and one copy is available for inter-library loan. This became a model project.
Some of the oral project deficiencies: only 124 women were interviewed and only a few Blacks and Hispanics were included. However, regarding the women, many of the men talked about the role of women in their interviews. Of the people interviewed, the earliest birthdate was 1875, but most were born after 1915. The interviews included specific questions, but participants were also allowed to digress. The last question was “What did the union mean to you?” Mary said that question brought some very emotional responses.
The dream is to digitize the audio and to create links to it on the website because she said that the tone of voice, colloquialisms, character of the person, and emotions just could not be captured in the transcriptions. The Iowa Labor Center, which is also located at the University of Iowa, and the Iowa Federation of Labor are working together attempting to find funding for the next phase.
The oral histories formed the basis for the current Iowa Labor Collection. In 1999 through assistance from Senator Tom Harkin the group was able to secure a grant of $360,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to process, catalog and expand the collection. Today the Iowa Labor Collection has grown to more than 1,000 linear feet in the Special Collections area of SHSI and is considered one of the top five labor collections in the United States. Mary said that it grows by nearly 100 linear feet per year.
Among the items included in today’s collection are labor union meeting minutes, lists of jobs, lists of union members and whether dues were paid, scabs lists, grievances, contracts, newsletters, and political campaign issues.
Iowa’s strong labor foundation is due in part to John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers who were concerned about the unsafe working conditions and child labor in the many coal mines in Iowa. The concern spread to other industries. One specific incident in 1947 involved 100,000 workers and the Right-to-Work Law being challenged by Iowa Governor Robert Blue. During this incident the governor experienced the power of the unions. The labor movement carried to Maytag and agri-business and many other areas. Records from many of these areas are included in the SHSI collection.
To access the list of people involved in the original oral history project and the list of holdings, go to: http://www.iowahistory.org/libraries/collections/iowa-city-center/iowa_labor_collection/default.htm. If the individual’s name is underlined, it contains a hyperlink to further information about the interview. I have found it a little challenging to navigate the labor collection, so I’m providing step-by-step procedures:
Iowahistory.org –> Libraries –> Manuscript & Audio Visual Collections –> Iowa City Center –> Iowa Labor Collections
Then be sure to check the various topics on the left hand side of the screen.
A hardcover book that serves as an index to the labor oral history project is:
Weaver, Janet, Howard Spencer and Mary Bennett, compilers. Iowa Labor History Oral Project Index. Iowa City, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa, 2003.
This book is found in the State Historical Society libraries.
Since the initial project, other organizations have added to the oral history collection. The Earth Watch Project interviewed 125 owners of century farms in northwest Iowa. These interviews have been transcribed, summarized and indexed. Many genealogists would not think of checking in Iowa City for information about an ancestor living in northwest Iowa. The Iowa Medical Society interviewed 75 “house-call” physicians, during which doctors interviewed doctors. These are only two other examples. The archives has more: Junior League in Cedar Rapids, musicians on steamboats, Welsh, Buxton, Glenwood residents and polio in Iowa. In addition, Mary said that the Hoover Library has a series of World War II interviews.
Don’t ever be surprised at what you may find! Leave no stone unturned.