AMERICAN PUBLIC LIBRARIES and labor unions began their institutional development during the nineteenth century as communities developed and prospered across the nation. Both institutions had strong democratic ideals and a firm commitment to free, quality education for all Americans, and so the historical roots of these institutions intertwined. Public libraries strive to serve the special needs of specific populations within their communities by providing the materials and resources they need. In areas of densely populated organized labor communities, special services could include historical and biographical works on the labor movement; literacy materials; and industrial, economic, and political studies. However, according to a national public libraries research study, libraries since the late 1960s have shifted from providing organized labor with special services to treating them as a group of patrons without special needs.
This article briefly reviews the evolution of public libraries, the origins of today's union movement, and the role of the AFL-CIO/ALA Joint Committee on Library Service to Labor Groups. The article further defines a number of misunderstandings and lack of trust between libraries and organized labor. A statement developed by the joint committee is recommended as a guide to future steps for library and organized labor: "There must be continuing effort, inspired by the conviction on both sides that this enterprise can and will benefit both the labor movement and the public library" (Guide for Developing a Public Library Service to Labor Groups, 1973, [unpaginated]).
American libraries and labor groups have a recorded history of working in collaboration toward common goals and participating in mutually beneficial activities. Libraries and labor unions in particular have intertwining historical roots. The organized labor movement considers itself a strong advocate for the free public library and has provided a consistent record of support and testimony for library funding critical to providing services and materials to the nation's citizens. Labor's concern and support for the community public library parallels its "ongoing struggle to achieve free, quality public education for all Americans" (Shields, 1979, p. 1).
As communities developed and prospered in the nineteenth century, public libraries were created to advance towns' social, cultural, or economic goals. Public library development was dependent upon either the economic viability of individual communities or upon the existence of interested wealthy individuals. Libraries, then, evolved from private philanthropic initiative, not from public governmental action. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, libraries and communities across the nation benefited from the proliferation of private philanthropy. Private philanthropy predated tax support by many years because it was simple, direct, and dependent only upon the accumulation of wealth by a generous donor (U.S. Bureau of Education, 1876, p. 477). The first tax-supported libraries drew much of their strength from the donations of wealthy men because towns were unable to adequately support the institution without them.
From these beginnings, organized labor envisioned the continuing educational opportunities for all its members and their families through the resources of the public library. Historically, unions have championed support for a strong public education system, have advocated the right of all children to receive a quality education, and have promoted opportunities for continuing education. Labor's commitment to the public library system extends to both individual and institutional needs. Union members collectively have a stake in public libraries as workers, taxpayers, parents, and citizens.
Many types of libraries are available to serve labor union members' needs: Academic libraries at universities with a labor studies center and major public library research facilities may serve local unions, central labor councils, or state labor federations. State libraries, law libraries at public universities, and national libraries such as the National Library of Medicine and the Library of Congress have specialized materials to answer complex requests. Also, labor union libraries can be found in cities housing national or international union headquarters.
In 1926, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) called attention to the need for librarians to assist unions in their educational work, especially in the area of adult education. The AFL recommended that "unions everywhere seek the friendly aid of librarians and that the American Library Association (ALA) be kept advised of our needs and plans" (Shields, 1979, p. 1). A more formal and direct relationship between labor and libraries was recognized by the AFL recommendation, but it was not until 1945 that the ALA formed the AFL-CIO/ALA Joint Committee on Library Service to Labor Groups, one of the longest-lasting collaborations in ALA's strong partnership history. Meyers (1999) states that the partnership has served both the philosophical aims of libraries and the educational goals of labor (p. 52). But the history of library services to labor groups is not without conflict. The conflict between unionization of library staff and the goals of libraries to serve unionized patrons that was disclosed in a 1949 library study on the social contributions of the institution showed a need to educate library management on the difference between these two areas.
The scope and purpose of this report is to provide a brief historical overview of the evolution of the partnership between libraries and organized labor from their first documented collaborations in the early 1800s through the last decades of the twentieth century. Studies and reports of library service to labor are scarce in library literature, but two major works provide thorough overviews.
One major work was published in 1963, Library Service to Labor, a collection of articles compiled by Dorothy Kuhn Oko and Bernard F. Downey. The AFL-CIO/ALA Joint Committee had been in existence for eighteen years when the Oko and Downey book was published, and the book presents articles from various publications during the years 1940 through 1960. According to Humphrey (1963), a contributor to the collection whose original article was published in a 1953 Newsletter, there was a "great barrier preventing …