A Journey in Itself: My Career Path in Unions and Librarianship

At one point in my life, I believe that I was truly the “hardest working woman in librarianship” as I was holding down four library jobs at the same time. I was working full-time in my current position as Librarian for the National Labor College, Monday nights at the library of the Maple Springs Baptist Bible College & Seminary, Tuesday nights at the Center to Protect Workers Rights Library, and Sunday afternoons as a Sunday Substitute Librarian at the Surratts Public Library for the Prince Georges County Library System in Maryland. A few months of working this schedule made me realize that although I truly love librarianship, perhaps doing just one job and doing it well was good enough.  So, now I have just one job as Librarian for the National Labor College and this job has been a journey in itself.

About a month after starting the job, the head librarian was replaced by Evangeline [Jackson] Mastrianni. It was the first time I had ever seen an African-American librarian. She took me under her wing, mentored me and made librarianship interesting. A short time later, I was sold on this profession that I had once shunned. I went to Howard University for my bachelor’s degree and Catholic University for my master’s degree in library science.

I continued working in libraries, even through my college years. At one point in my life, I believe that I was truly the “hardest working woman in librarianship” as I was holding down four library jobs at the same time. I was working full-time in my current position as Librarian for the National Labor College, Monday nights at the library of the Maple Springs Baptist Bible College & Seminary, Tuesday nights at the Center to Protect Workers Rights Library, and Sunday afternoons as a Sunday Substitute Librarian at the Surratts Public Library for the Prince Georges County Library System in Maryland. A few months of working this schedule made me realize that although I truly love librarianship, perhaps doing just one job and doing it well was good enough.

So, now I have just one job as Librarian for the National Labor College and this job has been a journey in itself. In 1991, I joined the library of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) as a library assistant primarily because they were offering tuition assistance and I wanted to go to library school. The library was then relocated in 1993, to the AFL-CIO’s worker training site, The George Meany Center for Labor Studies, a precursor to the National Labor College, which is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. With financial assistance from my employer, I graduated from library school in 1995 and was then promoted to librarian.

This special library that I started working in had evolved into an academic library. It has been somewhat of an adjustment for me, but it is one that I accept as a challenge and after all, who can turn away from a challenge? My clientele has changed and increased as well. Instead dealing with primarily the AFL-CIO staff, I also assist the students and faculty of the National Labor College, union members and the general public. I am now an academic librarian as well as member of the faculty and in my dual roles, I am now teaching in the classroom as well as online and serving on faculty committees. We get the standard reference questions that pertain to labor such as questions about union membership statistics, labor history, labor laws, strikes and who is really the “Father of Labor Day.” However, every now and then, I get not-so-standard reference questions. For instance, one person wanted to come up with a list of famous rich people who supported labor or had a labor connection. It just so happened that I remember seeing an award show once where Tom Hanks had whipped out his SAG (Screen Actors Guild) union card on television and spoke of when he first received his union card. I did a search on it and was able to find other actors such as Lisa Kudrow, Helen Mirren, Teri Hatcher, Kyra Sedgwick, Jennifer Garner and Alec Baldwin who participated in an advertising segment on “How I Got My SAG Card.” I also discovered that Kelly Rippa’s father was a union official and Al Roker’s dad was a union negotiator. My patron was thoroughly impressed and went on to speak of the importance of the library. I guess it did not hurt that his wife was also a librarian.

But if libraries are so important to the organizations they serve, why are so many organizations shutting down their libraries? In the past few years, at least two unions have closed their libraries Now those same unions regularly contact our library for assistance. I think that many are under the impression that everything they need can be obtained from the Internet. However, if you have neither the skill to locate the information, nor the ability to critically evaluate the quality or pertinence of that information once you find it, how are you served by having access to large quantities of information?

Our collection in no way equals the size of the U.S. Deparment of Labor Library or some of labor libraries at colleges and universities around the country, but the NLC does have some items that are unique to our organization. For instance, when you enter the building, a huge bronze statute of George Meany, the first president of the AFL-CIO, greets you with his trademark cigar in hand. There is also an exhibit devoted to Meany, and both an archives and our library bear his name. The library also has a collection of over 400 labor-related videos, constitutions and proceeding from the AFL, the CIO, the AFL-CIO and affiliated unions, periodicals from the affiliated unions, senior projects from graduates of the NLC and a special collection of rare and out-of-print labor publications.

The National Labor College offers a unique opportunity for working adults to earn a college degree. Many of them are union members from all over the country who are afforded the opportunity to earn college credit for their years of skilled training. It is a low-residency college; students are required to spend a week in residence at the campus in Silver Spring, Maryland, and they continue the remainder of their course work from home. It makes earning a college degree a much more obtainable and affordable goal for those who are already juggling a career and family.

The entire staff of National Labor College is unionized: librarians, archivists, professors, support staff, grounds men, cafeteria and cleaning staff. I have been a member of a union since 1991 and have certainly benefited from the membership. There is an assurance in knowing that your interests are being looked after and that you have a voice on the job. The AFL-CIO published a pamphlet, titled The Union Difference, which articulates how unionized workers enjoy higher salaries and better health insurance, pensions and vacations than their non-unionized counterparts.1 Likewise, a study by the Department for Professional Employees indicated that “union librarians earned an average of over 29% more than non-union librarians in 2006.”2 There is also a sense of solidarity. You know that you are not on your own, that someone has your back. Even in a collegial environment, being part of a union lets you know that we are in this together.

Do I support unions? Yes! Do I think it is advantageous to join a union? Absolutely! Can libraries make a difference in their organization? They do it everyday!

Jannie R. Cobb is a librarian at the George Meany Memorial Archives Library, National Labor College. She is also an Executive Board member of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA).

1. AFL-CIO.  The Union Difference. http://www.aflcio.org/joinaunion/why/uniondifference/upload/advantage.pdf

2. The Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO (DPE).  Fact Sheet 2007Library Workers: Facts & Figures. http://www.dpeaflcio.org/programs/factsheets/fs_2007_library_workers.htm