A Librarian Champions Political Poster Art
Library Journal Academic Newswire (American Library Association), May 31, 2007, by Norman Oder

After LJAN got an announcement that Lincoln Cushing, formerly a librarian at the University of California, Berkeley's Institute of Industrial Relations and Bancroft Library, was producing a series of books on political poster art, we wanted to learn more. Now out from the collective Inkworks Press is Visions of Peace & Justice: 30 years of political posters from the archives of Inkworks Press, which Cushing edited and served as lead archivist and photodocumentor.

LJAN queried Cushing, who also will co-author Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, to be released later this year by Chronicle Books, which reflects a collection given to the UC Berkeley East Asian Library. He will also co-author a book on posters of the American labor movement, Agitate! Educate! Organize! –American Labor Graphics, for Cornell University Press.

LJAN: Do you think political posters are not taken seriously enough?

LC: These three books follow up on one I did in 2003 on Cuban posters, and all are part of my passion for the medium. One of the issues involved here is the relative lack of academic interest in posters—in Europe, or Japan, posters are a big deal, and there are whole institutes devoted to their care and feeding. Here, frantic and underappreciated special collections librarians and archivists have stacks of unprocessed material under their care. And the few of these that are cataloged and available on-line have poor basic catalog information, such as artist name or date.

I think one key ingredient in promoting a "new wave" of scholarship in these is the opportunities offered by digital technology. Visual-based materials like posters are so much easier to peruse in an OPAC if they have images attached. I advocate digitizing a collection before it's cataloged, not eventually and if the money shows up. Once people know what's there, and can snag a digital image for classroom use or an article, these can be better integrated into research and teaching.

How'd you become a librarian?

I worked in the printing industry for over 20 years, sidelining as a graphic artist (screen-printing and offset), and decided that I wanted to become more professional in my approach to documenting and cataloging poster art. I went to UC Berkeley's School of Information, not intending to become a "librarian," but luckily took a library track series of courses and ended up getting a great academic librarian job right out of the gate at UC Berkeley's Institute of Industrial Relations (IIR), now IRLE.

How did you get hired at IIR?

My hire at IIR was due to the good sense of the head librarian there who appreciated my talents and skill set. I promptly engaged in several key projects, including building the first public dataset of full-text union contracts and mounting a series of labor photo exhibits that drew public attention and helped build our archive. Because of the political nature of labor studies in higher education, the special funding that covered my salary was specifically eliminated by the new governor upon taking office.

Then you moved within the campus?

After three years, I jumped to the Bancroft Library and did original cataloging of rare Spanish-language materials. Because the Bancroft Library, like many academic special collections, relies on "soft money" for technical services, I was laid off there a year ago. I became the first career librarian at UC thus "let go" in many years. Many of the collections I was processing are still in processing limbo. The China poster archive is unusual in that it was a collection I helped bring to UC, and am in fact listed as co-donor. In an innovative public-private partnership move, I shot and retain rights to all the poster digital images—I wanted the library to have something to offer quick collection access, but requests for print-sized images will be directed to me.


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