Old Books, New Data
The American Labor Who’s Who (ALWW) and American Labor Press Directory (ALPD), both published in 1925, document the activities of trade unionists, immigrant rights activists, civil libertarians, and progressive labor political campaigners. Designed as reference tools, like all directories they are also analog databases. The ALWW includes roughly 1,300 entries for U.S. activists and 300 additional non-US activists. Each entry is a telegraphic biography. Some provide only name, professional title and address at the time of publication. But many sketch rich life histories. Nearly all provide details on birth date and place, family background, education, migration, and work histories, as well as key organizations, events and publications. The Press Directory lists hundreds of national, local, and international periodicals, their addresses, and the names of their editors and publishers
As snapshot of the “labor movement” in 1925, the directories capture a movement in the midst of a fundamental transition. The expansion of mass production unions was still more than a decade in the future, but the innovative unions, educational institutions, and political groupings that would seed the new unions of the 1930s and 1940s are well represented. Long-serving elders and emerging leaders are represented, making the ALWW a collective biography linking social movements of the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.
Despite these advantages, the ALWW has important limitations and blind spots. Women and African Americans are particularly under-represented. The compilers apparently did not ask about informants’ mothers’ occupation (although a few gave it anyway). Younger activists, new immigrants, and members of the Industrial Workers of the World and anarchist wings of the movement are also less visible here. In addition, a number of activists may have avoided contributing to the directory because their organizations had policies prohibiting “personal publicity,” or because the “fear[ed] being victimized if they attracted attention” in the words of the editor.
Students and researchers who need the ALWW and ALPD as a reference source should stick with the published volumes. The data derived from the scanned texts still includes errors, even after much cleaning. Both volumes are common in research libraries, and are available to read or download online: Labor Who’s Who, Labor Press Directory.
The digitized and data-fied ALWW information lives in several forms. You can find it in a Google Fusion Table (ALWW) (ALPD), and in two interactive network graphs, here and here. I have also set up a repositories on GitHub where I will post updates to the datasets: ALWW and ALPD.
A word to the wise: the data are still imperfect.