Labor’s Many Robots

As I work through my book manuscript, I am coming across a rich crop of new robot images to supplement my earlier article Why Do Robots Rebel?  As it happens, the journal Labor Age was a frequent publisher and re-publisher of robot imagery reflecting its editors concerns with technological unemployment, company unions, and the power of the state. For instance, “The Relief Engineer” depicts Herbert Hoover as a robot trampling workers underfoot as he delivers aid to needy bankers who call to robot-hoover by means of a remote control device. The cartoon falls in line with many others that depict anthropomorphic robots as crushing human bodies or sweeping them into dustbins. Remote control devices as a symbol for lack of individual will was also a common them in Labor Age, for example in the cartoon “The Hand that Rules the Convention” depicting “Big Business Psychology” directing the votes of AFL delegates by means of an electric box.

Among the more unusual images is “Robotizing the Labor Banner,” borrowed from the UK, which depicts AFL cooperation with business leaders as a homosexual partnership. The image really has no robot allusions, so the title points to the extreme flexibility of the term, able to encompass all manner of negative connotations.

All of these, and more, appear in my Flickr album, Robots.


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Mapping the Labor Press

I recently discovered the 1925 American Labor Press Directory, compiled by the same crew that put together the Labor Who’s Who. Luckily, the press directory (ALPD) is much easier to convert to data. There is less information in each entry, and the entries are more regular. Craig Messner at the Center for Digital Humanities did an initial run at it to show me how it could be done. Then I put in the hours with OpenRefine and Excel.

Chicago had a thriving labor press in 1925.

Chicago had a thriving labor press in 1925.

Here’s my first map. It shows about 250 of the 800 news sources in the directory, mainly labor, radical, and farmer-labor papers with a national audience. It’s notable that Chicago alone had 56 papers (not counting locally focused papers). WordPress won’t display the map, but you can link to it here.

What I would like to do next is create links between the ALPD and the ALWW, and between both data sets and public sources like Wikidata. For instance, Vern Smith was the editor of Industrial Solidarity, published at 3333 Belmont in Chicago. His Wikidata entry is here, and links to his Virtual International Authority File (VIAF), which indicates that he is also the author of four books (at least one is wrong). A stronger example is Earl Browder, editor of the Worker’s Monthly (Wikidata, VIAF). The point being there is already linkable data available, and there should be a way to use it to enrich these data sets and vice versa.

But for now, there is more cleaning to do. The local labor papers section is a mess.

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Memories of the College of Complexes

collegeofcomplexescurriculumBack in 2008 I posted a number of documents from my Chicago free speech exhibit, one of them an interview of Slim Brundage by Studs Terkel. Now a reader from Italy writes in the comment section with memories of Brundage’s Old Town tavern known as the College of Complexes:

I have just turned 80 and my contact with The College of Complexes was over half a century ago, although the experience is vivid in my memory.
I was working days at a wholesale-resale house in the Loop, I think it was called Bennet’s. I somehow happened into the College on a Friday or Saturday evening. The piano was free, and nobody seemed to mind, so I played some ragtime on the piano. At the time I could only play in F# because the first song I had learned on the piano was chopsticks. Although Slim Brundage, as I recall, didn’t come in every night, he was there that evening and said he’d pay me something to come and play on the weekends. I, of course, jumped at the chance, because I loved the idea of having someplace to hang out with kindred sprits and play the piano and show off and get a few free beers. I also chaired a few lectures.
Moreover, the College was full of stimuli for a young man, psychologically weighed down upon by McCarthyism, who considered himself a conservative and, of course, given his conditioning, anti-communist. The conversation in that saloon, the people I met, the example of Brundage, turned my head around. Being there was a major moment in my education, for which I will forever be grateful.

Thanks for sharing, Gordon. Can’t wait to hear more.

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Situations and Relations

Back in February, I gave a talk to the UCLA Digital Labor Working Group about my network analysis with the Labor Who’s Who data. You can see my slides here:

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I opened with the idea that “the labor movement” is an abstraction–a place-holder phrase that means different things at different times. The American Labor Who’s Who was a particular version of that abstraction, created at a particularly contentious moment in labor history. It was compiled by a team led by Solon De Leon (son of a famous radical polemicist), and published by the Socialist Party aligned Rand School of Social Science. It describes a labor movement that encompasses not only trade unions, but also radical political movements, immigrant organizations, researchers, journalists, and what we would call “NGOs” today. My analysis, drawn from data extracted from the Who’s Who, is an abstraction of an abstraction.

It’s worth beginning with this caveat because computation and data visualization have an aura of legitimacy these days. These network charts (created in Gephi) are representations of reality, not reality itself. They are best used as models of plausible past realities, tools for thinking through problems of historical argument, rather than as illustrations per se.

I began with the broadest and busiest view of the data: all the people in the Who’s Who and organizations they belonged to (slide 1). The mathematical model that creates this chart draws more connected elements, or “nodes,” closer to the center and pushes less connected elements to the edges. A node’s size depends on how connected it is to other nodes, and lines connect people to the organizations they belong to. In these charts, the lines, or edges, have direction. People belong to organizations, so radiate from each person to their corresponding organizations.

In broad strokes, the first graph presents a ring of organizations roughly the same size, three organizations that are noticeably larger on the inside edge of the ring, and several groupings of people inside the ring. Without knowing the names of the people or the organizations, it appears that three or four organizations dominate the institutional field of the labor movement. There is also a lot of “noise.”

The next two slides try to filter out some of that noise by focusing on the “right” and “left” flanks of this social formation (think of it as “stage right”). The American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Masons dominate the right side of the field (slide 2), surrounded by other fraternal organizations (Elks, Odd Fellows, Moose, etc.), mainstream political parties, and four trade unions–the Printers (ITU), Machinists (IAM), Miners (UMWA), and Carpenters (UBC). On the left (slide 3), the Socialist Party dominates, and is surrounded by independent unions (two garment worker unions and the IWW), left-wing parties and para-party organizations (Communist and Workers parties, the Trade Union Educational League, left-wing youth organizations, and the Workmen’s Circle. Worth noting: the spatial position of a node has no relationship to its place on the left/right political spectrum. The Women’s Trade Union League and the American Federation of Teachers, for instance, are farther away from the SP than the Workers’ Party, for instance. (In future I should probably reorient these vertically!)

Next come two slides that focus on two individuals who show up near the center of the graph, and represent mediating figures between the AFL and SP-oriented flanks of the movement. Henry Ohl, Jr. (slide 4) was a Milwaukee Socialist and a printer who championed the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers. Max Hayes (slide 5) was a Cleveland Socialist–another printer–and the editor of the Cleveland Citizen. Both men started working in their early teens, apprenticed as printers, and were deeply involved in Socialist politics. Compare these two men with William Z. Foster (slide 6). He also linked the AFL and the SP, but by 1925 was publicly associated with the Workers’ Party and is placed farther on the periphery of the graph. Similarly, women union activists sit on the periphery of these network graphs, as do a number of labor intellectuals.

Whether Foster (or Pauline Newman or A. Philip Randolph) was less “central” to the labor movement of 1925 than Ohl or Hayes  is not really what the graph explains. Centrality in this model is not the same as “importance.” Ohl and Hayes are more “central” because they were members of fraternal associations, and their membership creates a relationship in this model that draws them closer to the many non-Socialist men who were likewise part of the world of the Masons, Odd Fellows, Elks, and Moose.

Unfortunately, we can’t see how this chart would change by 1940 when new leaders and organizations were in the field, and some of those on the periphery in 1925 moved to the center (e.g., Sidney Hillman). But the lack of chronology also helps us see the way careers in the labor movement spanned multiple institutions (e.g., Max Hayes in the Peoples Party and the SP).

Labor and radical history is often told one organization at a time, one city at a time, one campaign at a time. Of course we use the singular focus as a way to get at broader themes. When I researched my first book, I began with IWW harvest workers, and that opened out onto a whole constellation of social forces, places, and people. Network graphs, for all their complications and limitations, turn our eyes first to the relatedness that structures a social field. The “labor movement” of the 1920s was a particularly contentious place where splits between one wing or the other severed ties between erstwhile comrades. But groups and individuals in contentious relationships are still in relationships. A labor movement divided and fighting was still a movement to overturn the worst abuses of capitalism.

An insight I’ve gained from my research on workers’ education in between the world wars is that organizational schisms were not always the end of the story. Quite often they produced more talk, more action, and more learning. “There is no one road to freedom,” said the author of a popular workers’ education pamphlet, “There are roads to freedom.”


Note: I know the charts mix up colors and orientations. Extracting good charts from Gephi is one of the big challenges of this project, and I’m working on some other–also imperfect–ways to share the visualizations in more active form.

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Networked Labor Movement: I reach an impasse, and go around

This is the fourth a series of posts I am writing to help me think through the use of network analysis and visualization.


A simplified network chart based on the complete ALWW directory. The chart shows only individuals with 3 or more connections.

About seven months ago, I was merrily chugging along on this series using the index of the 1925 American Labor Who’s Who as a database for network analysis when I hit an impasse. I was using the list of names and organizations from the book’s index to build network charts. However, the simple structure of the index, so handy for the analog book, adds a layer of abstraction/interpretation that gets in the way of analysis.

The Labor Who’s Who index presents names according to two types of categories. The first might be called “varieties of organization” and includes American Federation of Labor  Affiliated Bodies, Independent Unions, Political Parties, and Miscellaneous. Of these, only “AFL-affiliated” is an organic category. “Political Parties,” on the other hand, is a conceptual category, not an entity that the Socialist Party or the Republican Party affiliated with. At the next level down things get more complicated.  Things get even messier in the Miscellaneous category, which includes Journalists and Writers, Negro Progress, Workers Education, and a few others.  Unfortunately, the index doesn’t tell us the particular newspapers and organizations that make up these sub-groupings in Miscellaneous.

Neither does the index list all the organizational affiliations listed in individual entries, it is more of a snapshot of what the compilers thought were the most important memberships of each person. The result is a simplified, and perhaps, distorted image of the network of associations, and my research impasse. I was at the point of pulling out particular sections of the network chart (those individuals who sat between the two main groupings), but it seemed better to stop and develop the full database than continue with the index alone.

Easier said than done. The complete directory of over 1,000 names is much messier than the index (see the post “Old Book, New Data”). In addition to basic OCR scanning errors there are a few missing and torn pages in the scanned version. The enormity of the task of cleaning the data myself loomed. One solution was to “crowd source” the data cleaning, but that might take a long time and who would really be interested? Another potential solution was to deploy undergraduate students as a “curated crowd.” Because I was already scheduled to teach an upper division lecture course on American Working Class Movements in the fall of 2014, I developed a course project that included a small amount of data cleaning for students–and (as it turned out) a lot of help from two graduate students in the UCLA Center for Digital Humanities. I’ll write about what went right and wrong with that process in a later post,  but the upshot is that now I have a working version of the complete directory.

And with that news, I will begin to post more regularly over the next month.


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Networked Labor Movement: Edges and Mediators

This is the third in a series of posts I am writing to help me think through the use of network analysis and visualization.

A more attractive, but somewhat less informational, version of the chart showing the mediators grouped into their own node. Note that the node is green because it is made up of individuals.

A more attractive, but somewhat less informational, version of the chart showing the mediators grouped into their own node. Note that the node is green because it is made up of individuals.

My first post in this series off-handedly introduced the phrase “bipolar labor movement”–which I suppose is a nice way to avoid calling it schizophrenic.  Then I took a sideways step to flesh out contents of the major categories in the American Labor Who’s Who index. Now we can move on to the look at the connections between all those dots that make the cool-looking network charts (right).

In network analysis lingo these links between people, organizations, and groups of organizations are called “edges.”  In this post I’m going to look at a number of different layouts, some of which will be prettier than others.  This is partly a function of Gephi, which has two ways of viewing the charts: Overview (not as pretty but more analytically functional) and Preview (less analysis and more graphic beauty).

A network chart based on the index of the American Labor Who's Who (1925). Blue dots represent major categories, red dots are organizations or subcategories, and green dots represent individuals.

A network chart based on the index of the American Labor Who’s Who (1925). Blue dots represent major categories, red dots are organizations or subcategories, and green dots represent individuals.

If you recall from the first post in the series, I came up with something that looks like a scatter plot (left).  Green dots represent individuals, red dots represent subcategories of the index, and blue dots represent top-level categories.  Below, I’ve used the same image, but made the edges visible.

One of the problems here is that there are so many nodes and links tightly packed that it gets very hard to make sense of them in the aggregate–the main reason I began with a simplified and abstracted version in the first post. In Gephi, you can filter out the less networked nodes (say, anyone who isn’t in at least two categories/groups).  But for the moment it’s interesting just to ponder the whole messy lot and look for possible patterns.

Network chart showing edges (linkages) based on index of the American Labor Who’s Who (1925) with major groups labeled.

Network chart showing edges (linkages) based on index of the American Labor Who’s Who (1925) with major groups labeled.

The clearest bits of new information are that there are a number links, and a group of individuals (green dots) in between the major (blue) nodes  This seems potentially important.  The individuals in the middle appear to be the bridge that links an otherwise polarized social formation.  Did they really have such a function in historical context, or is their position on the chart an artifact of the program parameters that create the chart in the first place?

By selecting this group of nodes in Gephi we can see what they link to: mainly the AFL, Misc. Groups, Journalists and Writers, Political Parties, the Socialist Party, and Workers’ Education.  So far so good. These are all likely places to find people who served as liaisons between unions and what today we would call NGOs.  Let’s call these people “mediators” because they sit in the middle of, and link, the AFL and everyone else.

The group of roughly 50 individuals who appear between the major nodes have been selected. The bright green lines point to groups/categories they belong to, and the names of those groups are visible.  Non-connected nodes are faded in background.  Chart produced in Gephi.

The group of roughly 50 individuals who appear between the major nodes have been selected. The bright green lines point to groups/categories they belong to, and the names of those groups are visible. Non-connected nodes are faded in background. Chart produced in Gephi.

Now, for the sake of simplifying the chart, we’ll group the “mediators” into their own node (Below: the green dot in between the two big blue circles. I’ve also rotated the chart to get a closer view).  To do this in Gephi, you right-click on the highlighted group and choose “Group” from the menu.  With the same mouse command you can tell Gephi to highlight the group in the “Data Laboratory” (i.e., the interface for looking at the underlying tables that make up the charts).  In the image below, the “mediators” group and all the nodes it connects to are selected/highlighted.  Everything else (non-linked nodes) is faded out.  See all the white dots in the green field surrounding the AFL node?  Those are non-selected individuals.  So this chart represents a sub-network of the broader dataset:  the mediators (a group of individuals–green circle) and all the organizations (red) and categories of organizations (blue) they belong to.

The "mediators" have been grouped into a single node and selected.  Organizations or categories linked to this group of individuals are visible while non-connected orgs are faded in the background. Network chart created in Gephi.

The “mediators” have been grouped into a single node and selected. Organizations or categories linked to this group of individuals are visible while non-connected orgs are faded in the background. Network chart created in Gephi.

The next step is the figure out who these individuals are. Turns out I’ve selected 54 individuals in all.  Among the more well-known are Fannia Cohn (IWGWU, workers’ education), Max Hayes (editor of the Cleveland Citizen and prominent Socialist), Arturo Giovanitti (ILGWU, formerly IWW), Mathew Woll and John Frey (AFL arch-conservatives), Alice Henry (WTUL), Fred Hewitt (editor of Machinists Monthly Journal), and a number of other labor union newspaper editors.  I’ll have to spend a little time running through this list to make solid conclusions, but it makes sense that there are so many editors and writers.

But I’m running out of steam and will have to leave that for another day.  I will leave you with this much nicer version of the same chart.  I’m not sure what it means, but it really looks like a peacock!

A more attractive, but somewhat less informational, version of the chart showing the mediators grouped into their own node. Note that the node is green because it is made up of individuals.

A more attractive, but somewhat less informational, version of the chart showing the mediators grouped into their own node. Note that the node is green because it is made up of individuals.

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Networked Labor Movement–one step backward

This is the second in a series of posts I expect to write to help me think through the use of network analysis and visualization. Read the first post, and a backgrounder.

A network chart based on the index of the American Labor Who's Who (1925). Blue dots represent major categories, red dots are organizations or subcategories, and green dots represent individuals.

A network chart based on the index of the American Labor Who’s Who (1925). Blue dots represent major categories, red dots are organizations or subcategories, and green dots represent individuals.

As one of my correspondents said of my last post: interesting picture, but it’s meaningless without the background data.  Well, maybe not meaningless, but abstracted in the extreme.  So I’m going to back up a bit, partly for my own sake, to scope out the major categories, subcategories and organizations in the dataset (i.e., the blue and red dots in the chart to the right).

To review, this data is drawn from the index of the digitized version of the American Labor Who’s Who (1925), so it represents what the compilers thought were the relevant organizational contexts for the people listed in the directory at the time it was printed.  The actual entries in the Who’s Who often include min-career histories, which makes them potentially more interesting, but also more complicated to work with as data.

Rather than run tables, I’ve made these “tree map” images with Raw, which is a great tool, but has limited ability to adjust labels, so some of these are a little messy.  The major categories are AFL-affiliated Bodies, Independent Unions, Political Parties and Miscellaneous Groups (numbers represent individuals in the category, some people are in more than one category):

alww index categoriesThe AFL, Political Parties, and Independent Unions encompass organizations. “Miscellaneous Groups” includes specific organizations and functional subcategories (e.g., Journalists and Writers, Impartial Arbitrators, as well as League for Industrial Democracy.). The AFL-affiliated group is large and full of little organizations with one or two people listed. Here’s a chart of the AFL-affiliated organizations with 10 or more members in the Who’s Who. It’s interesting that the Women’s Trade Union League makes it into this list because women are otherwise underrepresented.

American Federation of Labor-affiliated organizations or groupings with 10 or more members in the ALWW index.

American Federation of Labor-affiliated organizations or groupings with 10 or more members in the ALWW index.

Below is a breakdown of the “Independent Unions” where I’ve combined all the railway unions for the sake of getting a better chart. There was one representative of African American rail unionism in that group, but Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (founded in 1925) didn’t make it into the Who’s Who. A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen and a few others appear under “Negro Progress” groups and in some AFL unions. So the Amalgamated Clothing Workers is really the largest non-AFL union in the Who’s Who.  Also worth noting, by 1925 many militants had moved on from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). So in the index they have no connection, whereas their entries often list former membership.

Independent unions represented in the ALWW index (various railway unions combined for better visualization).

Independent unions represented in the ALWW index (various railway unions combined for better visualization).

The next subcategory is Political Parties.  In the actual directory quite a few people are listed as Democrats and Republicans, but not in the index. So this is really “left political parties” or “working-class political parties.”

Political parties represented in the ALWW index, apparently excluding the Democrats and Republicans which show up frequently in the full directory.

Political parties represented in the ALWW index, apparently excluding the Democrats and Republicans which show up frequently in the full directory.

And finally, that large category “Miscellaneous Groups.”  In later posts I’ll zero in on “Journalists and Writers” as well as a key group of individuals that link the AFL unions with the para-union organizations.

Chart of the subcategories and organizations listed under "Miscellaneous Groups" in the ALWW.

Chart of the subcategories and organizations listed under “Miscellaneous Groups” in the ALWW index.

The printed Who’s Who also has a geographic index, but I have yet to convert that into a spreadsheet.  It would be interesting to see how the categories, subcategories and organizations look spatially.  But that will have to wait for another day.

Next up, I return to Gephi and the network charts, add the links between groups and explore some individuals who seem to occupy key positions between the two poles of the 1920s labor movement.



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The Networked Labor Movement

index-labelsThis is the first in a series of posts I expect to write to help me think through the use of network analysis and visualization.

When I started converting the printed American Labor Who’s Who to an electronic database, I knew the data would be a handy reference tool for students. But I also hoped to use the data for my own research, and that it might even be instructive for contemporary activists.  In particular, I figured the directory of labor and radical leaders might help us see the interconnections between organizations and people that make up the thing we call “the labor movement,” and the fact that the movement was broader than “trade unionism” alone.

Why does that matter?  Well, if we consider that union membership is currently below 10% of the private sector workforce, things seem pretty hopeless for Labor.  How can a social group as defensive and marginal as that ever hope to assert real power again? But if we think of the unions as part of a broader political and social grouping that also includes journalists, educators, activists and lawyers–then we have something much larger and broader.  That’s important not just for politics today, but for the way we think about historical change. As a number of labor scholars have noted, the labor movement tends to grow in sudden, massive upsurges rather than by slow steady accretion.  The question is, what enables these upsurges?

For much of the 1920s and 1930s, union density was low and employers had the upper hand. Unions and radicals were divided against each other. A lot of energy went into expelling dissidents and poaching members from other organizations.  Old forms of unionism held on to authority, while newer forms remained inchoate or marginalized.  But unionism and progressive/radical political activism held on and, in the late 1930s and 1940s grew exponentially.  Legal and macro-political changes had a lot to do with that upsurge–especially a new federal policy in favor of collective bargaining and the full employment context of World War II.  But the massive and swift growth in union membership and power was also based on a network of local militants who carried out the organizing drives, produced labor newspapers and radio shows, and staffed the strike kitchens and community support networks that sustained activism.

So consider this chart, based on the index of the American Labor Who’s Who, which lists individuals by category (e.g., AFL affiliated, independent unions, miscellaneous), and by organization or subcategory (e.g., United Mine Workers or Journalists & Writers).  Note: elsewhere, I’ve explained the limits of this source in terms of representativeness, and why it’s still worth using. This analysis is based on the roughly 1,300 U.S. entries.

A network chart based on the index of the American Labor Who's Who (1925). Blue dots represent major categories, red dots are organizations or subcategories, and green dots represent individuals.

A network chart based on the index of the American Labor Who’s Who (1925). Blue dots represent major categories, red dots are organizations or subcategories, and green dots represent individuals.

I extracted the text of the index from the ePub version of the Who’s Who on the HathiTrust Digital Library, and converted it into a spreadsheet in Microsof Excel.   Using the Table 2 Net website I converted a CSV formatted version of the spreadsheet it into a bipartite network table.  Then I opened that table in Gephi–a free network analysis and visualization program and created a chart with the Force Atlas algorithm.

In a network you have “nodes” and “edges.”  This is a “bipartite” network, meaning there are two kinds of nodes: people and categories of organization/activity.  The edges are the connections between the two types of nodes.  This is a “directed” network, which means that the lines of connection (the edges) only flow in one way: individuals are members of organizations, subcategories, and categories of organizations.

The chart orients around two poles of about equal size:  American Federation of Labor (AFL)-affiliated bodies and everyone else (including journalists, independent unions, and political parties among others).  Depending on your mood you could read this as affirming the AFL as the dominant player in this social field, or as suggesting the diversity of and balance of players. Or you might suggest there was some level of tension and conflict between the two poles.  It’s useful to remember that this chart is an analytical tool, not necessarily a direct representation of reality–and there are layers of “bias” baked into the data from its origins.

This chart is designed to accentuate the separation of the groups for analytical purposes. It doesn’t show the edges (connections between and among people and organizations), only the relative groupings.  I’ll get into the linkages between groups in subsequent posts.  In particular, I’m interested in the group of green dots that sits between the AFL and Miscellaneous poles.  This turns out to be made up of editors of major union and labor federation newspapers.  They were a key group that linked unions to the broader working-class public sphere in large part because they formed bridges between unions and other social sectors–something that seems to be represented here in the chart.

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The more things change…

As a parent of two Chicago Public Schools 4th graders, I’ve had a crash course this year in urban austerity.  Teachers are trying their best, but with 31 students per class, the school library effectively closed, and district mandated testing, it’s an uphill battle.  Meanwhile the district closed 50 schools outright last year citing low enrollment, but is likely to approve 30 new charter schools for next year (despite many charters being under-enrolled).  So I got a chuckle when I came across the following from the November 1924 edition the Industrial Pioneer (p. 28), which should be filed under “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

No Refinement for Robots

The school system is supposed to be the bulwark of the republic, and, up to now, it has been certainly a bulwark of capitalism.  The little children marched the goose step and swallowed the pills of prejudice and patriotism without any objection from them or their parents.  And in general, capitalism considered money spent on “education” to be well spent, and in the interests of public order, their order.

Something is happening now, though just why is not so clear.  The capitalist class is sabotaging education. We have before us a statement by the teachers’ unions of Chicago, which is a protest against the proposal of the Czaristic superintendent of schools here to fire about a thousand teachers, cut down the hours slightly, use a two-shift-a-day system, use the “platoon” or factory system of instruction, and abolish a part of the medical inspection of children.

The excuse given for all of this curtailment in effective education is “poverty,” “no money in the school fund.” The teachers counter this by figures to prove that forty billion dollars’ worth of property in Chicago escapes taxation altogether, while only four billion dollars’ worth of property is taxed.

Well, that is another problem. What we are interested in is: why is it that these capitalists do not raise the money? If they felt it necessary to maintain schools, they could raise the cash some other way than by taxation. Or they would submit to an infinitesimal tax on the forty billion dollars’ worth now escaping taxation.

Does this phenomenon mean that the capitalist class, in its second or third generation, is so degenerate that it can no longer act in its own interest? Or does it mean that capitalism has decided that there is danger in even such a slight education as it has been affording the children of the proletariat, and that it has decided to cut down on that?

The austerity we’re seeing in K-12 and in higher education begs the same question, although these days we don’t use the phrase “capitalist class” in polite company.  We might rephrase the question: have business leaders given up on mass education as anything other than a market?

In any case, the title of the piece is a reference to a line in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots): “A working machine must not play the piano, must not feel happy, must not do a whole lot of things.” Indeed.

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Five Ideas for Digital Labor History

This article originally appeared on January 9, 2014 in LaborOnline.

Over the last two decades, digital technologies have transformed practically every aspect of historians’ professional lives. When I entered graduate school in the 1990s, there were still professors who wrote articles out by hand, and then turned over stacks of legal pads to the departmental secretaries to key into computers. In the archives we took notes with paper and pencil and made as many photocopies as we could afford. Today, laptops have displaced the office staff, most archives allow personal digital cameras, and we leave the archives with hundreds of JPEG files instead of note cards.

But what comes next? As Joe Hill might say: don’t mourn the loss of analog history, organize the digital future. In this post, I suggest some possible digital futures for our research, teaching and communication. Using tools and research practices associated with the field of “digital humanities” (or “digital history,” if you prefer), labor historians can expand the influence of our research and teaching in the digital public sphere, and collaborate with audiences beyond the academy.

Digital Humanities is a growing approach to research and teaching with its own journals (online only, naturally), an NEH grant category all its own, and a growing number of academic programs with dedicated faculty positions. Typically digital humanities programs bring together scholars from traditional humanistic disciplines (e.g., literature and history) with those from design, communications, and library and information studies. These scholars tend to coalesce around an interest in digital media and media history, technical research & publishing practices, and the application of digital technologies to analog (particularly historical, archival) content.

Labor and social historians have been active in digital history, particularly in the use of the web to present historical sources and narratives. Among those who will be familiar to the readers of LaborOnline are the late Roy Rosenzweig (founder, Center for History and New Media), Steve Brier and Joshua Brown (American Social History Project), Janice Reiff (author of a manual on history computing and editor of the online Encyclopedia of Chicago), Kathryn Sklar and Tom Dublin (Women and Social Movements website), and James Gregory (Pacific Northwest Labor and Civil Rights History Project).

But Social History generally, and Labor History specifically have not been closely associated with Digital Humanities as it has emerged in recent years. The reasons for this are complex, but in any case I think this is a lost opportunity for both fields. For those Digital Humanists who aspire to make their scholarship more relevant to nonacademic audiences, Labor History has an outstanding record of public scholarship and a variety of existing public networks. Digital Humanities brings librarians and archivists into dialogue with scholars in ways that echo the many oral and community history projects that labor historians have championed over the years. Meanwhile, as the initial hype about the digital millennium subsides, there is a growing interest among digital humanists in questions of labor in digital production. Whether we call ourselves digital humanists, digital historians, or just skip the labels and get to work, I think labor historians can make a huge contribution to this growing field.

Here are five suggestions, by no means exhaustive of the possibilities, for Labor Historians to make use of digital tools in teaching and research.

1. Laboring Wikipedia

Students, journalists, ordinary people, and even professors regularly use Wikipedia as a source of basic information. But relatively few of us contribute to Wikipedia or understand how its content is created and vetted. Put simply, a “wiki” is a digital platform for collaborative writing that changes as users add, edit or delete content and links. The English language Wikipedia has over 4 million articles. There are a number of active editors who focus on labor and radical topics, and there is an Organized Labour Portal that organizes work on the topic. But there is room for improvement when it comes to labor and social justice topics.

Recently I assigned a Wikipedia contribution, rather than a term paper, to my upper-division U.S. labor history course at UCLA. The experience was not without complications, but it was successful enough for me to recommend it to others (a more complete account is on my blog). Among the virtues of writing for Wikipedia: students must comply with Wikipedia’s well-established and clearly articulated sourcing and editing standards, and their work is subjected to the lens of Wikipedia editors who are well versed in the varieties of unintended copying and outright plagiarism student-writers sometimes commit. The reward for those students who truly embrace the assignment: having their work published on a world-readable platform used by millions everyday!

With the development of a major outreach program by the Wikimedia Foundation, assigning a Wikipedia contribution in one of your courses is much, much easier than it was a few years ago. In addition to a new class of volunteer editors known as campus and regional “Ambassadors” who can help instructors, Wikipedia now has a system for hosting courses, resources for training students, and systematically reviewing contributions. LAWCHA might want to sponsor an international day of Laboring Wikipedia on the model of the Global Women Wikipedia Write-In during which libraries and cafes hosted collective write-ins.

2. Liberate Public Domain, Orphaned, and Radical Texts

Anyone who has used GoogleBooks knows the frustration of clicking on an interesting book title only to find it inaccessible. Google and the university-oriented HathiTrust Digital Library defensively block access to many items simply because they were published after the easy-to-recognize cut off for public domain copyright status. US copyright law dictates that virtually anything published before 1923, and everything published by the federal government, is in the public domain. Also, books published between 1923 and 1963 are in the public domain unless their copyright holders renewed the copyright (there is an online database of renewed copyrights). A concerted effort by scholars could encourage the library partners of the HathiTrust to open many of these books, periodicals and pamphlets that languish behind the digital curtain. Last year I noticed the American Labor Who’s Who (1925) had been scanned but was not accessible. Through my university library’s copyright office I made a request to open up the text for research purposes, which was quickly granted. You also can make requests directly to the HathiTrust Digital Library through the “Feedback” link at the bottom of each catalog record. I recently requested the liberation of the IWW’s monthly magazine Industrial Pioneer. My request is still under review. I’ll let you know what happens. (Update: two additional volumes are now open access.)

Here are a few other examples of labor periodicals that are currently inaccessible despite having been scanned:

The Journal of Electrical Workers and Operators (IBEW)

The Workers’ Monthly (CPUSA)

A 1939 union-published retrospective on the Amalgamated Clothing Workers by J.B.S. Hardman.

And there are plenty more, including the proceedings of annual conventions of the Steelworkers, the ILWU and the UAW (all behind the digital curtain). Wouldn’t these unions like to have their historical record freely accessible to their members, scholars and students? We as labor historians could organize a systematic effort to identify publications in need of liberation, then work with the organizations (if they exist) to grant permission to HathiTrust to open up access. As an added bonus, when these texts become freely available they help support more labor content on Wikipedia.

3. Mining Digital Texts

Liberating digitized books is a first step to really digging into them with digital tools. These books often contain a wealth of biographical, organizational, geographic, and visual information. In addition to reading these texts in a traditional sense, we can use them as data for mapping and visualizations. There are a number of free (or low-cost) programs for mapping and charting this kind of data. Among the free mapping systems, Google Maps and Google Fusion Tables, are relatively easy to use, but are limited. A mapping tool with more flexibility, but a steeper learning curve, is GeoCommons. Another free, online visualization tool is Raw, which allows you to create a variety of chart types. These are just a few of the relatively easy to use tools. If you want to put in more time, there are many more possibilities.

In the case of the American Labor Who’s Who, I was able to extract the text and, with the help of staff in the UCLA Library and Center for Digital Humanities, to clean and parse the text into a spreadsheet. I then converted the Who’s Who text into a specialized type of wiki and posted it online ( This conversion of text to database is far from complete or perfect, and it was time-consuming. But it has opened up the Who’s Who to types of analysis that were nearly impossible in its analog form, for instance maps of labor leaders’ birthplaces and 1925 work addresses–note the transatlantic migration–created with Google FusionTables.

We also might use digital tools to examine some of the many movement texts that are already online and freely available, for instance the Samuel Gompers Papers, the Early American Marxism website or the Chicago Foreign Language Press Survey. Born-digital information, like the discussion logs for H-Labor, would make another great subject of analysis. Currently, you can browse the H-Labor lists by date. But imagine a more fully searchable system so that we don’t need to ask the same questions over and over again. Graduate students might even benefit from analyzing the development of the field through the shifting interests of H-Labor posts (or of all H-Net posts for that matter).

4. Social Media for Scholarly and Popular Communication

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are, for better or worse, now regular features of the scholarly communication cycle. Not only do scholars post announcements of their work, but we use social media like a version of conversations that take place at conferences or over coffee. These conversations typically don’t count as “scholarship,” and rarely show up in publications, but they are a key way we develop and test our analyses. As with Wikipedia, professional historians are often not the ones posting historical content on social media. For instance, the Facebook group “Labor History” has nearly 4,000 members, including union members, staff, and professional historians. Being active on social media is a good way to engage public debates about labor and social policies that impact working people. LAWCHA and LaborOnline could play a bigger role in curating these communities by encouraging members to “like” or “follow” the organizations, stimulating debate online, or generating and circulating useful tags. Of course, this can be a lot of work so there needs to be an organizational commitment. But we can also leverage the voluntary activity of the broader labor history community. One key truism of social networks is that most of the content is created by a few highly active users. Are there any LAWCHA members who are “super users” of social media? You know who you are.

A potential problem, and opportunity for LAWCHA, is social media fatigue and fragmentation. As these platforms proliferate, and compete for our time and attention, it can get harder to follow everything we want to follow. We might use LaborOnline (or its social media accounts) to aggregate these information flows, and then present them in a more digested (or “curated”) fashion. Digital humanities does this through the online “journal” Digital Humanities Now, which is like a blog with volunteer editors who find content online and post links. Among the benefit of this type of activity are that it helps create community, and provides an automatic archive of links for future reference.

5. Social Media for Research

Facebook and Twitter are not just for wasting time; they are also good for research. A recent poll from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that almost three-quarters of adult who use the internet regularly use social networks. There were some significant variations across platforms, with African Americans and Latinos more over-represented among Twitter and Instagram users. Recently, some union campaigns have used Facebook groups to reach out to workers, and workers have developed their own Facebook groups as part of the campaigns. Facebook and other platforms provide a specialized interfaces (known as an Application Programmer Interface, or API) that allows a researcher to extract the content of these groups (if the groups are public or the researcher is a member). Or, we could do this on Twitter: identify hashtags and users associated with unions and social movements, extract a retrospective archive, and see how these developed over time. The Occupy movement even has a website to encourage research (OccupyResearch). You may need to check with your university’s Institutional Review Board, since this research includes living human beings, rather than long gone historical characters.

In the many forms of social media, we can also see a big piece of the archive for future historians of everyday life and contemporary social movements. The time is now to collect and preserve this digital record. Major strikes and campaigns in recent years have created an increasing volume of digital ephemera (think of the Writers Guild Strike, Occupy Wall Street, the CTU Strike, or the DREAM Act initiative). In the old days, archivists collected flyers and broadsides. Now they have to collect online (see for example the Tamiment Library’s Web Archive project). University based historians should encourage archivists to preserve these collections, while historically minded activists can do their part too by preserving their digital communications. The problems are daunting: if you’ve been in a union staff meeting lately you know that instant messaging and emails are typical forms of communication. How much of this stuff will unions want to preserve, if any? It would be great to have a dialog between archivists, activists and historians about the scope of future digital archives, and how we can ensure that future generations will be able to access the history of contemporary movements for social and economic justice.

* * *

These are just five ideas among many possibilities. If you already doing some of this, tell us about it in the comments. Likewise, if you hate the idea of digital history, let ‘er rip (in a polite collegial tone, of course).

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Laboring Wikipedia

Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Work with Wikipedia

Wikipedia Organized Labour Portal

Wikipedia Organized Labour Portal

Last spring I finally made the leap.  Like many other college instructors, I’ve found the traditional term paper a less-than-inspiring exercise.  Students, infamously, do not read a professor’s comments unless a rewrite is required, and even then many will simply want to know “what do I need to do to get an A” or whatever target grade they need.  It’s hard to blame them.  In a big lecture class, they know that theirs is but one of 70, 80, maybe 150 papers that the instructor (or a graduate student grader) is wading through.

So I bit the bullet, chucked the term paper, and assigned a Wikipedia contribution in my upper division labor history lecture with 85 students.  It was a wild ride, but in the end it was successful enough that I want to do it again.  Since a number of colleagues have asked, and for my own planning, I’m posting some notes on the experience.  If you have more questions or feedback, feel free to comment or email.

The Rationale:  Beyond the desire to escape the negatives of traditional papers, Wikipedia has a number of positive attributes that make it a useful environment for learning about writing, research, and the circulation of knowledge in the digital public sphere.  Wikipedia is now over a decade old and claims over 4.2 million articles in the English language version alone. For better or worse, it is a common research tool for students, the general public, and even (gasp) professors.  Although nothing in the digital realm last forever, the time is long past when we can imagine it as a fad.  Like JStor and GoogleBooks, Wikipedia is part of the instructional ecosystem. The only question is whether students will learn to use it appropriately.

Given the pervasive use of Wikipedia as a basic information source by students, journalists and the public at large, professional historians in general ought to be more engaged with the platform. All the more so for Labor Historians because topics in our field, and related social justice topics, are not consistently represented despite the efforts of a number of very active individual editors. There are significant, and sometimes surprising, gaps in the topics represented and quality of existing articles.  When I was preparing my Wikipedia course assignment I developed a 3 page list of  Articles to Add or Improve.  Most of these now have much more material, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

One reason topics like these are less well-represented than, say, detailed histories of automobile models, is the demographics of the Wikipedia editor corps. Research by the Wikimedia Foundation found that 90% of Wikipedia editors were male.  In response, feminist activists organized an international edit-a-thon that aimed to improve the quality and visibility of women’s studies topics on Wikipedia, and also to encourage women to become familiar with Wikipedia and join the ranks of editors. Similarly, WP editors are overwhelming from northern hemispheric, industrialized countries, and some post-colonial scholars are promoting the active participation from the global south.  In terms of gender representation, almost any college course is substantially more representative than is typical of Wikipedia editors. And many college courses will include greater proportions of African Americans, immigrants, and non-US citizens, not to mention low and moderate income people, than is typical of Wikipedia editors.  So by turning our students into information producers rather than mere consumers, we can participate in the diversification of one of the most widely-read publications in the world.

Preparing Yourself & Your Students: Writing for Wikipedia is an experience quite unlike writing a term paper.  You and your students will have to unlearn certain habits, especially the strong desire to do all assignments at the last moment.  Instructors, too, will have to overcome the desire to “wing it.” If you’re working with Wikipedia you are automatically working in collaboration, and good collaboration means planning ahead.

For my fellow college instructors, here is a quick-start guide:

  1. If you’re not registered yet, get yourself a user account right now and start making little edits.  Users get heightened scrutiny from editors right after they are created, so it’s good to have a track record to let editors know you’re not a vandal.
  2. Check out the extensive training materials for instructors and students, and heed some of the suggestions for building the Wikipedia assignment into your entire course, not just something at the end.  You might want to read Amanda Seligman’s useful essay Teaching Wikipedia Without Apologies, or  Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom (both free online).
  3. Find a campus or regional Ambassador who can help you locate volunteer editors who might want to help out.
  4. Change your syllabus because, to repeat, this works best if you integrate the Wikipedia assignment (including mastering the guidelines, training in editing, etc.) into the entire life of your course.
  5. Register your course, and create a course page that each student signs up to.

Wikipedia is a highly developed collaborative community with well-articulated standards that are often mystifying to newcomers.  In case you’re completely unaware of the phenomenon, a “wiki” is a collaborative writing platform that develops over time as users add, change and delete information, pages and links. Any user can edit any page without prior permission, although in practice there are limits.  The system saves every version of every page (along with the name or IP address of the editor, and the time the edits were made).  You can compare any two versions, and easily revert to previously saved versions.  This should be a recipe for chaos, but cadres of (mostly) volunteer editors police Wikipedia watching for vandalism, plagiarism and copyright violations, and other transgressions of the system’s editing standards.

In my experience three Wikipedia editing concepts were especially confusing for students:  Neutral Point of View (NPOV), the prohibition on “original research,” and standards of “notibility” for entries.  The rationale for each goes back to the fact that Wikipedia is a reference work that is intended to distill established knowledge found in other sources.  Surprisingly few college students fully comprehend the utility of a good library reference room, perhaps because they are used to Googling their research questions.  Writing for Wikipedia forces students to come to terms with the relationship between reference, interpretation, and primary sources–distinctions that have been flattened out with the mass digitization of books and archives.

At the top of the Wikipedia list of concepts is Neutral Point of View (NPOV) which Wikipedia defines as writing “fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without bias” on a topic representing all the views that have been presented in “published by reliable sources.”  This should be No Big Deal.  However, students have become so familiar with the thesis-driven essay that they often have a hard time understanding neutrality.  Does it mean you cannot right about controversial topics?  Does it mean all interpretations, no matter how marginal, need equal space?  Not at all. But it does require a different tone and approach to content.

The ban on original research, likewise, tends to confuse students (especially the better ones) who are eager to pursue a topic to its ends.  But the rationale for this policy makes sense in the context of community verification.  We can’t expect volunteer editors to follow up original archival research, so evidence in Wikipedia has to come from widely available sources.  Luckily, Wikipedia’s standards for reliability are not too far off those of university professors, including scholarship in peer-reviewed journals, university press books, and mainstream news outlets.

Finally, “notability” is often a problem when it comes to labor and social movement topics. In an effort to limit the proliferation of entries in trivial topics, Wikipedia requires topics with their own pages to be “notable“–mentioned in some reliable published source.  This is fine, except that some important labor topics are most widely covered in movement sources (like party or union newspapers).  Some self-appointed watchdogs of Wikipedia will object to these sources as insufficiently neutral, or will complain that “not every little strike” deserves its own page. You students may need to find a larger topic in which their smaller event or person falls.  But in general, if at least two published sources refer to the event or person, a page is justifiable.  For U.S. labor topics of the 19th and early 20th century, especially biographies of activists, the American Labor Who’s Who often gets you half way to notability.

Recently, Wikipedia added a system for hosting courses and student assignments, and extensive resources that lay out detailed suggestions for structuring your course around Wikipedia.  There is even a visual editor that frees new users from having to master arcane wiki markup code. This is a huge help for instructors. The first time I tried editing with students (back in 2007), the contribution was deleted almost immediately.  This still happens all the time, but if you work through the course hosting system, student contributions will go through a formal vetting process before they are released into the public Wikipedia, or given an explanation of why their contribution doesn’t fly.

The Student Experience:  In my course, students could edit as individuals or in groups.  I provided a long list of entries that needed to be created or needed significant improvement.  Students who wanted to do something not on the list had to give me a good explanation why, and not many did.

As expected, students who took the assignment seriously and learned the editing system ahead of time, did well.  Students who waited until the last minute crashed and burned.  The ratio of engaged-to-oblivious students was not unlike a regular term paper assignment, maybe a little better.  Students who thought they might get away with overzealous copying (i.e., plagiarism) found themselves called out by volunteer Wikipedia editors who quickly found the original sources.  Students who were serious, got pointers from editors about formatting and linking to other articles.

In general, students found the work much more detail oriented than they are used to in a regular paper.  It’s harder to be lazy on Wikipedia than it is in a traditional paper.  Volunteer editors confronted students with requests for sourcing for assertions they thought were “facts,” which drove students back to the library reference room to fact-check their own work.  Although I don’t have any systematic evidence, I think many students took feedback from Wikipedia editors more seriously than they would a professor’s because it was more consequential.  Getting published on Wikipedia was more of a prize than a slight change in grade.  On evaluations, a common refrain was that the assignment was difficult, but “cool” (as quoted in the student newspaper) because their work was live for the world to read.

Among the pages  my student created last spring (although most have some changes since last spring) are those for Ernest Riebe, Oscar Ameringer, the United Canary, Agricultural, Packinghouse and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU).  If I’m not mistaken, Ameringer and Riebe were new pages and the other two were major expansions of existing pages.  Links to all the student pages are available via the class portal.  (Note, most of my students editing took place in late May to early June 2013, if you want to look at the page histories).

Changes for Next Time: As a first big leap into Wikipedia for course assignments, I was satisfied with my experience. But I will make some significant changes in the future.  The biggest lesson learned was how complex and multifaceted the assignment is.  In future I will cut down on other assignments, and more closely tailor the entire class to writing on Wikipedia (as the tutorials for instructors suggest, but of course I ignored because I thought I was special).  Group work was surprisingly successful and I will lean toward group editing in future especially in larger classes, not least because it cuts down on the volume of individual hand-holding.  Also, given that the number of truly “missing” articles is getting smaller, I will focus student work on improving and expanding existing articles or sets of articles, particularly articles considered important by organized editing groups like the Organized Labour Portal.  The goal here would be to get an article in shape so that it can be featured on on the Portal.

A Few Words about Expertise in the Wikipedia Community:  As I mentioned, labor and social justice topics are not consistently represented on Wikipedia, however, there are individual editors improving the situation every day, literally.  Some of these editors, like Tim Davenport who edits as “Carrite” and runs the site, are prolific and hugely knowledgeable. In addition, the Organized Labour Portal and WikiProject Organized Labour coordinate work on the topic.  That said, not all established Wikpedia editors are friendly to labor and radical topics, and probably a larger group are simply indifferent.  You may encounter less than civil interactions from these self-appointed experts, despite long-established rules for civility.  Professional historians and graduate students venturing into the Wikipedia world for the first time should pause to consider that university credentials do not automatically grant you expert status.  This is a well-developed system with its own norms for tone, sourcing, and relevance.  It is also a community with many different personalities. All of this deserves respect, especially at first.  So give yourself some time to get familiar with the system, and develop your own track record of editing before diving in with your students.

Questions, comments? If I’ve left something out send me an email, or use the comments. Hope this is helpful.  You can find me on Wikipedia as the User “Tobyhigbie.”

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Old Book, New Data

Labor Who's Who title pageOver the past year or so I’ve been working on digital history project that aims to convert a 1925 American Labor Who’s Who into a research and teaching database and wiki. It continues to be “a learning experience,” as my mother used to call all the unpleasant encounters of childhood. Not all bad, to be sure, but not all good. Since I have versions of the data up on the internet, I thought I should post some reflections.

Labor historian Jon Beck from the Michigan State Industrial Relations program started my thinking about the Labor’s Who Who around 2007 or so when he suggested it might be useful for my project on working class autodidacts. The Rand School of Social Science sponsored the compilation of the Who’s Who in 1925 under the direction of Solon De Leon (son of famed radical Daniel De Leon). De Leon and his colleagues threw open the front door to the House of Labor, so to speak, including in the roughly 1,300 entries for the U.S. activists in the fields of immigrant rights, civil liberties, cooperatives, progressive and radical politics, as well as the to-be-expected trade unionists (there are 300 additional non-US activists–a few of these were deported or self-exiled US activists).

Nineteen twenty-five was a curious moment for the American labor movement. The industrial union upsurge of the 1910s was sputtering under the weight of repression, factionalism, and failure. The powerful unions of the CIO were a decade or more in the future. Meanwhile, conservatives held a tight, if a bit desperate, grip on the political machinery of trade unionism at the national level, antiunion Republicans were in the White House, and reactionary groups like the KKK and American Legion were popular.  And yet, there was a great deal of activity and organizational creativity in some unions, and there was a blossoming network labor colleges training the leaders of the ’30s.

The Labor Who’s Who is a snapshot of this contingent moment and some of the people who lived it.  Each entry is a telegraphic biography. Some provide only name, professional title and address at the time of publication. But many sketch rich life histories. Nearly all provide details on birth date and place, family background, education, migration, and work histories, as well as key organizations, events and publications.  It includes both long-serving elders whose careers stretched back to the 1870s, and emerging leaders who would continue to be active into the second half of the 20th century.

For years I had a library copy of the book on my office shelf, thinking I would get to the project eventually.  Then in 2012 I discovered the book had been scanned by Google and was sitting behind the access wall in the HathiTrust (HT) digital collection.  You could search keywords, but the search only returned a few words and a page number.  From my key word searches, I knew that about 40 individuals identified themselves as “self-educated,” but learning more about the educational and organization matrix represented in the directory was just beyond reach. Hoping to avoid the wrath of Disney and other commercial publishers, HT takes a defensive approach to copyright.  Most things published after the easy cut off for public domain (before 1923) go behind the access wall.

Very frustrating.  And ironic. Here was a book published by a radical college, locked behind a copyright wall at the behest of capitalist media corporations.  Not that these corporations give a hoot about the Labor Who’s Who, it’s just structural.  Everything after 1922 goes behind the wall unless someone specifically requests it be freed.

Thus was born what I’m now calling the “HathiTrust Liberation Project.”  Hundreds and hundreds of labor and leftist volumes published between 1923 and 1963 are in the public domain unless their copyright holders renewed the copyright (there is an online database of to check for renewed copyrights: ).  Unlike literary works, mundane works of non-fiction and social movement publications are usually not renewed.  Many of these volumes are already digitized, but are blocked.  Likewise, a surprising number of post-1923 government documents are behind the access wall.

The Labor Who’s Who was my first foray into old book liberation. Through the good graces of the UCLA Library, I was able to convince HT that the copyright on the Labor Who’s Who probably wasn’t renewed, and in any case the socialists won’t kick if you open it up.  Somebody flipped a switch and the volume appeared.  This was in the spring or summer of 2012.

The next task was extracting and cleaning OCR’d text.  This turned out to be a little more complicated than I expected.  In the end, I downloaded an EPUB version of the Who’s Who, and copy-and-pasted the text into a separate file.  So far, so good.  But this was a long way from a database. With the help of UCLA librarian Zoe Borovsky and Miriam Posner of the Center for Digital Humanities, I got some help breaking the text up into discreet entries and, eventually, data fields.  However, there were many, many text recognition errors.  I probably could have hired someone to do it (if I had the money), but in the end I did most of the corrections myself.  Let’s just say I became intimately familiar with the contents of the book.  And isn’t that the traditional activity of scholarly humanists after all, even if this mode of familiarity generally is not recognized as such by personnel committees.

So by the late fall of 2012, I had a relatively clean text file with entries broken into fields:  name, titles, birthplace, birth date, father’s occupation, and a residual field that was too irregular to easily parse that included things like education, organizations, activities, publications, home and work address.  Next came the task of reorganizing this information from a flow of text into a spreadsheet, rather tediously done by cutting and pasting in Microsoft Excel.

From the start, I had envisioned the Who’s Who database as a teaching tool, as well as a research project.  I imagined students using the entries as a starting place for biographical papers, so I needed a student-friendly interface.  I had experimented fitfully having students write or edit Wikipedia entries in my classes, so it seemed natural to put the Who’s Who data in a wiki.  A regular wiki is searchable, but doesn’t really have database functions.  To get those, I used the Mediawiki extension bundle Semantic Mediawiki.  The semantic wiki allows you to define data fields and relationships, import data, search across data fields, and enable students or other users (if you wish) to edit the data through forms.

birthplacesworkaddressI also loaded the data into a Google Fusion Table, which allows you to quickly make maps from any geographic data (e.g., birthplaces).  Fusion Tables is easy, but limited in terms of customizing.  My students used the filtering and mapping functions to produce in-class reports on the demographics of various organizations represented in the directory.  Semantic Mediawiki is much more flexible.  But for the non-expert it was one of those “learning experiences.”  Many late nights, crashes, and frustrations before ultimate success.  In the future I hope to use it in my labor history classes to train students how to use a wiki before I set them off on the actual Wikipedia.

What remains to be done is the “Other” field–education, organizations, publications–lots of good stuff.  I’m currently working with folks at the Center for Digital Humanities, and hope to have that done by late winter.  In the meanwhile, I’m doing some analysis of subsets of the Who’s Who, particularly the organizational networks.  And that presents me with my next “learning experience,” Gephi.

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