California Librarian: Lincoln Cushing
I met Lincoln Cushing on a brisk November day after a tramp through the bustling circus of Berkeley's narrow streets. His office, if you want to call it that, is a cubicle shoehorned into the rear of the Institute of Industrial Relations [now named IRLE] library, itself housed in a pleasant old building that began life as a Methodist women's dormitory when the town and the last century were both young.

Cushing is the electronic outreach librarian, a rather modern term for a man who spends his time working in a place heated by steam radiators; his work involves extending the reach of the Institute's resources beyond the walls of the library to the world outside, a laudable goal which Mr. Cushing has apparently taken much to heart.

He greets a stranger with the warmth of an old friend and before five minutes have passed we are trading stories about books and motorcycles and of course about labor because this library is all about that. The latter half of the Twentieth Century saw a great flowering of labor research and scholarship, with the creation of specialized library collections to support that work. This library, like others at Cornell and Wayne State and Rutgers, also has as a primary role making the history of workers and the details of labor relations available to those who are not doing doctoral research-to ordinary working people. Cushing's job is to make the library come to them.

One of his special projects is creating a digital collection of labor union contracts. Having spent quite a while researching collective bargaining agreements, I can testify to the difficulty in obtaining current or historical contracts from either unions or their management partners. Having examples of other unions' contracts readily available will save unions and businesses considerable time and provide a guide to best practices. Cushing's database will be very helpful to all the players in the collective bargaining universe.

Mr. Cushing is also involved personally and professionally in cataloging and preserving socially and politically significant graphic materials, an interest arising from a long career as a printer and graphic artist. A native of Cuba who emigrated with his family to the United States, Cushing retains a great love and admiration for the island and its people. His book íRevolucion!: Cuban poster art is a fine collection of Cuban graphic artistry and a great addition to the subject area. Working with the University of California and the Cuban national library, Cushing has produced a wonderfully colorful, fascinating book that will no doubt become a standard reference for the genre.

Beyond his office in the stacks, the collection awaits. I climb a ladder and pull down one of the bound volumes of the East Bay Labor Journal. Its yellowed pages hold the stories of working people,

told from the perspective of their own interests, hopes and fears. Here on these fragile pages are long-forgotten strikes, marches and meetings for the things we take for granted: retirement, health benefits, social security, the minimum wage. There was a general strike in Oakland in 1946 that you might have heard was a riot if your news came from conventional sources; it probably didn't make your school's history books either. You can read that story here, written from the perspective of the workers who held the picket signs. Lincoln Cushing is trying to preserve that sort of history, to let you read it and see the pictures without having to make a trip to Berkeley.

While I walk the aisles of this small library a worker stands atop a ladder, running electrical conduit around a corner to a fixture on the wall. Over the course of few minutes she will measure the metal pipe, bend and attach it, then run wires through its length to make an exit sign work safely. She tells me that she is a member of the electrical workers' union and an employee of the university. I ask her if she knows about this library. The woman surveys the room from atop the ladder, shakes her head and returns to her task. Most working people haven't the time to find out about their own history. If they are to know, the history has to come to them.

Back in his cubicle, Lincoln Cushing is busy at his computer. With a few key strokes he brings to life a collection of sites on labor history, economics and culture. As he works I read a pile of press clippings on his desk. The San Francisco Chronicle reports "Governor Schwarzenegger wants to cut the Labor Institute at the University of California, saving 2 million this year and 4 million in the next budget year - a tiny reduction in a $100 billion budget."

I ask Cushing what this means for him. Calmly he says that his position may be on the block, which is to say, his work and the benefit that comes from it. He flashes a quick grin, the look of a man who is doing exactly what he has always wanted to do. And then he turns back to his computer.

Michael McGrorty

IRLE labor culture resource page
Labor Culture resources

Article from California Libraries, 2/24/2004,
published by the California Library Association

return to Lincoln Cushing's homepage
updated 4/23/2021