Subject Heading Terms Used for Photographs in the Walter P. Reuther Labor Collections

In my first paper, I wrote about the difficulties of assigning subject headings to visual materials. For this project, I will examine how one archival repository, the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs, handles the issue of subject headings for their labor-related photographs.


In order to understand their cataloging system, some background information is in order. The Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs is one of the largest labor archives in the country. It houses the papers of the UAW, AFL-CIO, United Farm Workers, the Airline Pilots Association, and many other labor unions, as well as the personal papers of labor leaders such as Walter Reuther and Cesar Chavez. In addition to its labor focus, the Reuther collects in the areas of local history, social reform, and the records of Wayne State University.

One of the components of the Reuther is the AV department, where film, audio and video cassettes, posters, memorabilia, and photographs are processed, cataloged, and stored. The Reuther separates the AV materials from the manuscript collections, although the existence of AV materials are noted on manuscript finding aids.

The archives holds approximately 350,000 photographs, 15,000 audio recordings, 5,000 films, 500 videotapes, and numerous odd items of memorabilia. The majority of photographs are labor-related, and for the purposes of this project, I will be concentrating solely on those.

Requests for use of AV materials comes from a variety of places--local and national media, PBS, book publishers, documentary film makers, and the unions themselves. Most reference requests come by phone, mail, or fax, rather than in-person visits.

The AV staff is small--two full-time employees and a few part-timers. One of the full-timers takes responsibility for all reference requests. In fact, he is the only person who knows for sure where all the materials are stored. Materials are processed and cataloged (as much as they are cataloged) by all AV staff members.

Current State

The AV staff has developed a system of assigning subject headings that is based on conventional sources such as LCSH and LC Thesaurus for Graphic Materials. However, they have found that those sources do not have enough depth in the areas of labor history and labor or trade unions. Consequently, the staff has been forced to create their own set of subject headings. Although there is no list of commonly used headings, with experience the staff become familiar with them. The person in charge of AV reference sets a few rules, those being: the terms need to make sense to him; that he prefers more general terms with few subdivisions (he said he doesn't mind looking through several folders to find what he's looking for).

As is the case in many archival photograph collections, cataloging is not as complete as it is in manuscript collections. At the Reuther,there are no separate finding aids or MARC records for the AV collections. In fact, they currently not really being "cataloged" in the strictest sense. Each photograph is assigned a subject heading, sometimes with subdivisions, and like subjects (within a collection) are filed together in a folder. The folders are boxed and stored without further classification being done.

Here is an example of subject headings assigned to a specific collection of photographs, the George L-P Weaver collection. Although it is a small collection, I found that is a good representation of some of the most common subject terms used at the Reuther. The main subject heading is George L-P Weaver, followed by subdivisions.

George L-P Weaver

Several examples of typical subject headings used at the Reuther can be seen here. Proper names are used often, without further subdivision. For instance, the photos in the Hubert Humphrey folder portray Weaver and Humphrey together in a variety of circumstances over a broad span of years, with no regard for the subject(s) of the photograph. Secondly, there is wide use of very broad terms. In the "Conventions" folder, there are photographs taken during many different organizations' conventions, spanning Weaver's career: CIO, ILO, IUERMW, etc. According to the AV reference person, it is much easier to look through one large folder than to try to find a "Convention" folder subdivision under each organization. Another example is the "International Visitors" folder, containing photos of international labor leaders and dignitaries meeting with Weaver, filed together regardless of where they are from and what the purpose of the visit was. Conversely, some subject terms used are extremely narrow. For example, "Century of Negro Progress Exhibition" folder documents one specific event. As is usually the case with photographs, many are unmarked as to year or event depicted. In such cases, the AV staff will make an educated guess as to the time period and create a folder with a span of years, like the "1960-70" one in this collection. In other collections, there may be a subject heading of "Undated", in cases where a date cannot be determined.

A quirky system to be sure, but one that seems to work fairly well for the Reuther's current needs. There are several reasons for its success. One is that the AV department is a small operation. As I stated earlier, there is basically one person in charge of AV reference, and that person knows the collection well. This person has stated that most of the information about the collections are "in his head". While obviously not an ideal situation, so far it has worked. Secondly, until now, there has been no push to change their way of operating. While the manuscript collections at the Reuther have long been cataloged according to LC standards, MARC records created, and uploaded to OCLC and LUIS ( a local database), the AV department remains tied to past ways of operating. Lastly, there is the matter of staff time and the backlog. With such a small staff, the AV department has barely enough time to process the collections they have now, keeping thoughts of a serious revamping of the system on a back burner.

What's Next

The AV staff at the Reuther realize that they cannot continue to operate in the same manner for much longer. The repository has plans, to be completed sometime in the next decade, to put a record of their collections online, including the AV collections. Minimally, they would like to create some sort of inhouse database. Although it was not mentioned, I'm sure they would eventually like to have AV records on RLIN or OCLC also.

As a step toward accomplishing these goals, some form of standardization of terms must be implemented in the AV collections. They hope to have a start next year, when they will apply for a grant to create a list of standard subject headings used in describing labor collections, referencing LCSH and LC Thesaurus for Graphic Materials, as well as LC authority lists for proper and geographic names. The manuscript department has already completed a similar list, and is using it extensively. Consistent use of such a list will not only make the photograph collections more accessible to outside browsers in an online environment, but increase accessibility to in-house users also. The current system, in which only one person knows the collection and there is little written documentation, is quite risky for the repository. What happens to access if that person leaves?


In order to achieve the level of accessibility that the repository wants, it will be necessary to rethink the entire process for what has passed as cataloging in the AV collection. To this point, individual photographs and their corresponding folders have been assigned a subject heading, but the collections as a whole have not. While the AV department at the Reuther has functioned fairly well with this, the future direction of the department and the repository as a whole make this the time to apply more standardization to their operation. Creating a reference list of commonly used subject terms, and an authority list of proper and geographic names is a good start. It will also be necessary to rethink the number of subject headings assigned to the photographs. The cataloging unit for archival photograph collections is the whole collection, so an unlimited amount of subject terms is possible. Applying standardized subject terms to collections is the first step in implementing further standardization such as creating MARC records and providing access through OCLC, RLIN, CD-ROM products, or other local databases.

While the Reuther will find it advantageous to adopt a more standardized approach to subject headings and cataloging in general, still the problem of specificity of standard subject headings remains. The staff may find that hybrid subject heading guidelines may need to be developed, drawing most heavily from standard sources, but where necessary, adding terms specific to labor subjects. Many archives, including the Bentley Historical Library, have taken this course.

Clearly, as one of the major labor archives in the country, the materials in the Reuther's AV collection deserve the widest audience possible. Some type of standardization of subject headings and cataloging applications will be one of the first steps toward this goal.

ILS 603

Amy L. James