Labor (History) of Love
Librarian Laurie Wermter receives Wisconsin Labor History Society Lifetime Achievement Award
Catalog this story under the secret lives of librarians: In April, long-time Memorial reference librarian Laurie Wermter was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wisconsin Labor History Society for her decades of work on many of the Society’s key programs. Although she wasn’t anticipating this recognition, some of Laurie’s many contributions include serving as the Society’s treasurer for ten years, assisting with the statewide professional production of “Images of Labor from American Musical Theater,” assisting with the National History Day “American Labor History” awards, and constructing an extensive bibliography available on the Society’s website. This bibliography of 500-plus items related to Wisconsin labor and working-class history—most with detailed annotations—is designed to assist researchers with finding materials on a topic that can be difficult to research at the state or local level. “As a reference librarian, I had found that it seemed to be pretty difficult to find articles and books about Wisconsin labor history, which I didn’t understand because we have been a very influential state in many areas of laws relating to work,” she said of the impetus for this project. “If I’m having trouble finding these things, other people will be. Regular working people who aren’t involved in academic work like we are at the University, they would be really stymied by it.”
Over the years, Laurie has discovered that her experience as a librarian has enriched her work with the Society, and vice versa. Reference questions the library receives about labor, unions, and civil service are frequently referred to her, and her skills in finding, accessing, and evaluating information are a boon to this history organization. For example, many of the labor-related queries that cross Laurie’s desk are related to the Kohler strikes near Sheboygan, WI (one of which remains the longest major strike in American history), and she is able to refer patrons to key documents and resources that would otherwise prove difficult to find.
Her work educating patrons and her passion for increasing awareness of resources in the library also informs her work with the Society’s various contests, which are open to middle school, high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. Through these projects, Laurie is able to pass on her passion for history to the next generation. “We have to do more and more to interest [young people] in labor history so they can see that these things didn’t come to us out of the largess of the factory owners or heads of companies,” Laurie maintains. “They were won by people getting together and saying things should be different—they should be better—and fighting for it.”
When asked about the issues currently facing the field of labor history, Laurie responded that with so many local unions disappearing due to legislative action and consolidation into larger unions, there is a real risk for the records of these historic struggles to disappear. Laurie asserts that, since many of the triumphs of the 1930s and 40s labor movement, including New Deal legislation, public education, and social safety net structures, are now under grave attack, the need to preserve this aspect of American history is especially critical. “If you don’t know how people won those things, then you feel powerless in society. So we have to inspire people to know that unions were an innovation in society on how to tackle big problems and make a difference—to bring about positive change.”
Laurie Wermter is a Reference Librarian at Memorial Library.