Labor movements have often had to create their own newspapers to disseminate their message. In the early twentieth century, the Industrial Workers of the World managed dozens of dailies as part of their broader organizing strategy, including The Industrial Workers and Solidarity, as well as periodicals for non-English speakers, such as Industrialisti, for Finnish speakers. Marija Dalbello brings an international lens to her investigations of the library’s Industrial Workers of the World collection. Recently, she visited the RBML as part of her project titled, Media Culture and Immigrant Writers in the Labor Movements During the Progressive Era.
What brings you to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library?
I am working with the Industrial Workers of the World collection, 1916-1922. I am part of an international research group on the project, T-Bone Slim and the transnational poetics of the migrant left in North America. We are studying a working-class poet and “wobbly” bard Matti Valentin Huhta (better known as T-bone Slim) and his contemporaries. T-bone Slim was of Finnish immigrant heritage. I am researching the media culture and political-aesthetic discourse of labor movements, with a focus on foreign-born individuals and transatlantic communities.
How long have you been using RBML materials (for this and/or previous research)?
I have been working with the Industrial Workers of the World collection since October 2022.
What have you found? Did you come here knowing this material was here?
Columbia’s RBML has a 1922 letter sent by T-bone Slim to L.S. Chumley. So far this is the only known letter that Slim wrote in English from the period when he started his professional career as a prolific columnist in industrial syndicalist papers. The Industrial Workers of the World collection has other unique materials including copies of “wobbly” prison newspapers and working-class poetry relevant for my project.
I usually approach archives as a ‘situation’ that I reverse engineer and my work takes multiple readings and engagement with materials. Because I am interested in the materiality of texts and writing, I make connections among different documents with that purpose. I have started writing about my process for our research project blog a series of autoethnographic reflections and the blog is at: https://blogs.helsinki.fi/tboneslim/category/archival-digs.
What have you found that’s surprised or perplexed you?
Because of the slightly conspiratorial nature of some IWW activities, there are hidden layers in the material itself and a few documents in this collection. I am still puzzling out illegible handwriting and the origin of some.
The biggest surprise for me was the letter dated August 15, 1916, signed by Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman (Figure 1), which was “hidden” in an envelope postmarked 1940, with a notation that it should be filed “with other documents of Blast & E. Goldman.” It was good that I look at everything carefully.
Figure 1. Circular letter signed by Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, August 15, 1916 [Miscellaneous envelopes], Industrial Workers of the World collection, 1916-1922, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York. [MS#1475 Box 1, folder 75]
Another surprise was a calligraphic poster, a version of the Father Thomas J. Haggerty’s Wheel, a visualization of the structure of the industrial system. It is not only radiant because it is hand-painted on canvas but also well-preserved (Figure 2).
Figure 2. “One Big Union I.W.W., The Structure of the Industrial System,” [Large W.W.I Poster]. Industrial Workers of the World collection, 1916-1922, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York. [ MS#1475 oversized poster]
I would like to share one more observation: about how useful it would be to have access to the notes of those who processed the collection. I always wonder about what the archivists have removed. So, I look for any odd inscriptions and notations on the containers. I look for evidence that would provide additional insights.
What advice do you have for other researchers or students interested in using RBML’s special collections?
Open the channel of communication with the archivists who curate collections. I am pleased that there is no constraint on taking photographs in RBML. Making photos is an integral part of my research process and the construction of meaning once I leave the special collections reading room.