XXVII Conference, Athens 1996 A Word From the Ex-Secretary

The XXVII Annual Conference, organized by Alexandros Krauss, of SYETE Archives/Library, took place in Athens on 26-28 September 1996. Please read the minutes of the scholarly part of the meeting (in French). -- During the administrative part, Jaap Kloosterman, IALHI's outgoing secretary, spoke briefly on the actual situation of labour history institutions. This is his text.


The world of labour is history-conscious. Clearly, its literary production over the centuries is only partially present in today's archives and libraries. Much was lost due to neglect, repression or war. Yet throughout the industrialized world many repositories hold large chunks of the history of labour and the labour movement. Some of them belong to the Section of Business and Labour Archives of the International Council on Archives (ICA/SBL), which sprang from ICA's earlier Committee on Business Archives in 1988. Many more - not just archives, but libraries, museums and documentation centres as well - take part in the International Association of Labour History Institutions (IALHI) founded in 1970. As secretary of IALHI from 1988 to 1996 and freshly elected chairman of ICA/SBL the author has had ample occasion to ponder developments in this community. Unsurprisingly, they range from good to bad.

The world of labour is also conscious of an uneasy relationship with power. Hence labour organizations and related individuals are often reluctant to deposit their records with government archives. A majority of IALHI members (74 percent) are private institutions, sometimes (30 percent) depending directly from political parties or trade unions, or co-financed by them. The few state archives and libraries represented (6 percent) are almost all in Eastern Europe: some are former Communist Party institutions that were nationalized after the breakdown of communist rule.

Universities and other scholarly institutions (20 percent) constitute an intermediate type. Mostly, we find legal constructions in which a university, itself state or private, is co-operating with a private body, usually a foundation or association. The latter will normally own or hold the collections involved. A typical example is the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam is run jointly by a private foundation and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Bibliothèque de Documentation internationale contemporaine (BDIC), at the Université Paris-X (Nanterre), also originated from private initiative. On the other hand, the Modern Records Centre is just a division of Warwick University Library in Coventry.

In 1988 IALHI had 91 members. Today it has 99, down from a high of 107 in 1993-94. These arid numbers hide remarkable shifts in the composition of membership. First of all, the geographical distribution has considerably widened: in 1988, 21 countries were represented as against 27 today. Portugal was lost, but Argentine, Australia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Iceland and the Russian Federation joined the group. The influx from Central and Eastern Europe is even more impressive if one takes the newly created Stiftung Archive der Parteien und Massenorganisationen of the former German Democratic Republic into account. Interest in labour history may be waning in this part of the world for the time being, but once it revives it will at least find most of the sources intact.

Second, IALHI today has a 6-member strong museums group, a category which did not even exist in 1988. Actually, most of the museums were born (or reborn) after that date, and they seem to be thriving. Museums are popular - in Holland, for instance, government attempts to stem their numbers met with utter failure. More generally, visual materials now are about the hottest thing in any collecting institution, where mild indifference used to be the norm. In addition to the museums, many libraries and archival repositories in IALHI have greatly improved access to their collections of photographs, posters and the like.

At the same time, however, European labour organizations are having second thoughts about their past. Of the 13 members IALHI has lost over the last couple of years, 9 were run by political parties or trade unions. Most notoriously, the powerful Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund and the famed Trades Union Congress got rid of their historical collections; the Schweizerischer Gewerkschaftsbund had preceded them. Socialist parties in Belgium, France, Germany and Italy have also cut back on their expenses in this field. It may be fitting that West-European domination in IALHI has markedly diminished, but the way this has come about is hardly a ground for congratulations.

If they want to stop the trend, labour archivists could perhaps take a look at some unexpected counterparts. Business archivists have sometimes been quite impressive in convincing management of the value of history. And they are not really as different as the traditional antagonism between capital and labour suggests.

Basically, of course, business and labour archives share the fate of most private archives. Their owners may or may not be interested. Consequently, the records may or may not be kept. They may have some order or be in complete disarray. They may be accessible or not. They may remain in private hands or end up in public institutions. And their utility to researchers varies wildly.

Yet business and labour archives often present characteristics that set them apart from other private archives. Companies may have subsidiaries, indeed in different countries. Many labour organizations are operating on international, national, regional and local levels; some will have separate branches for women, youth etc, which may be multi-layered as well. Companies may have their own financial institutions, pension funds, insurance plans. Trade unions, co-operatives, mutual benefit societies may run or own enterprises of any kind. Labour parties will be found in all sorts of representative, consultative or executive bodies. Companies and labour organizations may merge, split or disappear. At this or any time, managers and politicians may take a broad view of what belongs among their private papers. In short, business and labour records may pose any imaginable challenge to both archivists and scholars.

Two further analogies are worth mentioning. Historical records are usually seen to be of limited economic value to the organizations that own them. Rather, they tend to be considered as an expensive liability. As a result, more often than not the keepers of the records are engaged in perpetual combat in order to have them preserved. And as a rule, their preservation proves actually even more expensive than expected, since it involves hiring qualified staff. As the records in question are really out of the ordinary, this in turn creates a demand for special training. Yet few countries have a really adequate training system for large private archives.

Of the business archives that are members of ICA/SBL, roughly two-thirds are (mostly large) companies, of which two out of five are banks. Of the remaining one-third almost four out of five are academic institutions, the rest being made up of (mainly regional) state archives. This would seem more or less to reflect the general situation: the vast majority of business records remain with those who created them, and the role of state archives is hesitant or at any rate limited.

Researchers have long known that in social and economic history it is extremely useful to consult both business and labour archives. Indeed, a trade union archive may be the only source for a particular branch of industry, or a company archive for the organization of labour in that branch. And in general, the overall picture will gain from contrasting the views of employers and employees. That's why it is interesting to note a modern tendency to combine both types of records in a single institution, as is the case of the Modern Records Centre, which in addition to the TUC records holds those of the Confederation of British Industry, or the Centre des Archives du Monde du Travail in Roubaix, a subsidiary of the French Archives Nationales that seeks to collect records and papers documenting the whole social-economic history of its region. In a similar way, the Netherlands Economic History Archive and IISH share the same building, and to a large extent the same organization, in Amsterdam.

What researchers know, archivists may learn. A joint meeting of IALHI and ICA/SBL could be something to look forward to.

Researchers may have yet a few more things to teach. From the 1960s on, labour history, until then studied to a large extent by amateur historians with close links to the labour movement, was increasingly accepted in academic circles. Notably in Europe, it often became a standard part of social and economic history courses. The professional historians put different questions, and brought more sophisticated instruments to the job of answering them. Even though many of them were influenced by one or another brand of marxism, their work tended on the whole to de-emphasize the role of socialist ideology and ideologists. Conceptually, however, traditional ideas about the industrial revolution, often with teleological connotations, continued to serve as a foundation for much research. Hence theoretical progress was insufficient to meet the challenges posed by changing labour conditions in the world and the collapse of the Soviet empire.

A few years ago, one of my colleagues at IISH summarized some of the main obstacles facing today's labour history thus:

  • Geographical, spatial and environmental circumstances have often been neglected.
  • So has the interdependency between objective events (eg labour processes, wages, housing) and individuals' subjective experience of them.
  • Research tends to isolate the working class and its movements from outside influences, eg from the history of entrepreneurs.
  • Issues involving gender, race, ethnicity and age are treated as separate subdisciplines; too often, the industrial worker still is young, white and male.
  • Misleading periodization persists. On the one hand, developments of the early modern period are all too often considered isolated incidents. On the other, analyses of very recent labour relations and movements from the past two decades are usually the domain of scholars from the fields of industrial relations, sociology etc.
  • Research still overemphasizes areas like North America, Western Europe or Japan; yet developments in Chile, Nigeria, India or Malaysia deserve to be studied as events in their own right, rather than as early stages of, or deviations from, developments in the old industrialized countries.

Obviously, such criticism also implies a program for future research. If this is implemented, labour historians will increasingly look beyond the framework presented by most labour history institutions, and we may expect the following to happen:

  • The existing records of organized labour will be viewed in a different light: old sources will be reexamined and put to a new use. Actually, much of this is already happening for some time.
  • The records of other labour-related organizations like consumer and production co-operatives, mutual benefit societies etcþlong underratedþwill receive growing attention. As an example, in 1992 IALHI already organized an international conference on mutual benefit societies that greatly enhanced knowledge about sources.
  • Business archives will be used more intensely, to the benefit of both labour and economic history.
  • Sources normally found in state or municipal archives and dealing with topics that so far have received scant attention, will be taken into greater consideration.
  • Finally, an important separate development is the growing use of "processed sources": computer databases. Some just bring together data found in different archives and libraries; some, even better, standardize difficultly obtained and disparate data. At IISH alone, a database containing a historical sample of the Dutch population, and others holding data on guilds and mutual insurance companies are vivid examples. In recent years, much of the best research in social and labour history was based on such "meta-sources".

Brief, the world of labour history is as fascinating as ever. Labour history institutions should keep pace.

Jaap Kloosterman