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PEP May 2006
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Public Employee Press

May is Labor History Month
Sowing the seeds for library locals


Edith Rees in a photo from the 1950s.

By JANE LaTOUR

As a child in western Massachusetts, Edith Rees probably never dreamed she would spend her career as a big city librarian. But her father taught literature at Williams College and early on, she was drawn to the lure of books.

Edith summered with her parents and sister Clara in the small fishing village of Menemsha on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off Cape Cod.

In 1918, the family extended its stay into October to avoid the deadly influenza epidemic. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1925 and began her career at the New York Public ­Library as evolution, science and objectivity went on trial in the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial. For the next 35 years, she worked in branch libraries, including the Inwood and Donnell libraries. She retired in 1960.

She soon got active with the Staff Association, one of the employee groups that existed before the DC 37 library locals were organized in the 1960s. Wide-ranging debates were raging within the different organizations that were competing to win the allegiance of library workers.


Edith Rees developed a special interest in children's books and was a Children's Librarian from 1928 to 1938. She retired in 1960 while at the Donnell Library.

Decades later, the topics sound very modern. One big question was whether professionals should establish a union or confine themselves to a professional organization, such as the Staff Association.

Formed in 1917, the Staff Association succeeded the Social Welfare Committee, which had been around in an unorganized form since 1897. The Association’s cooperative relationship with the administration invited criticism from groups such as the Library Employees Union, the United Staff Association and the Library Workers Union. The others charged that the Staff Association was actually a means for management to delay the development of a real union.

Organizing for unity
Edith Rees served on the Association’s Executive Board and its Committee on Unionization. In 1938, the Association issued recommendations to the library trustees that won the support of all the other groups. They called for the library to restore Depression-era pay cuts and raise pay by $120 a year for Circulation Dept. employees.

Several of the groups worked together in a massive salary campaign. The 1939 United Campaign was a joint effort of the Staff Association, the United Staff Association and borough staff associations from the New York, Brooklyn and Queens library systems. The teamwork they learned led the groups to merge in 1942, forming the United Staff Association of the Public Libraries of New York City. This group continued its existence until 1953


Edith enjoyed her nightly shot
of Jim Beam.

Edith Rees was one of many library workers who did the spadework that resulted in the birth of the three DC 37 library locals — Queens Library Guild Local 1321, Brooklyn Library Guild Local 1482 and New York Public Library Guild Local 1930.

The daughter of Quaker parents, Edith embraced many progressive causes throughout her long life. She lobbied for Social Security, unemployment insurance, the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage and Medicare. Her history went back far enough to include hearing a speech by Mother Jones at Madison Square Garden. And far enough forward for Edith to champion the civil rights and women’s movements.

Two chairs in Bryant Park now bear plaques in memory of Edith and Clara Rees, both NYPL Librarians. On a warm day, take a book and sit there. Edith and Clara would approve.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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