Agnes Inglis: the woman behind the Labadie Collection

January 5, 2011

There are at least 10,000 of them—pastel 3x5 unlined index cards, dense with handwritten bibliographic information and comments, all in the same tidy (if not always easily read) script. This catalog of the University of Michigan Library’s Labadie Collection represents the life’s work of Agnes Inglis, the collection’s first curator, who volunteered for the monumental task largely because no one else was doing it. Inglis, who was neither a trained curator nor a librarian, did not use a formal library classification system; instead, she created an idiosyncratic inventory that placed items by their shelf locations rather than call by numbers, and that sometimes incorporated information beyond the strictly bibliographic.

Now, more than fifty years after Agnes made her last notation, Caroline Yee, Information Resources Reference Specialist, and Jenny Barr, student in the School of Information, are transcribing each one of her cards into a database that will eventually be made available to scholars everywhere.

The Labadie Collection, which is the world’s oldest publicly accessible collection of radical history, began with a gift from Charles Joseph Antoine (“Jo”) Labadie (1850-1933), a well-known labor organizer, social radical, and anarchist. In 1911 he gave a trove of books, pamphlets, journals, personal papers, and ephemera to the University of Michigan (upon his death, the bulk of his extant writings and other materials were added to the archive).  It was a gift that the university only reluctantly accepted and accordingly it was thoroughly neglected until Inglis came along. Now the largest collection of its kind in the country, and among the best in the world, it has become one of MLibrary’s most important treasures.

Inglis’s cards, along with the Labadie Collection, today reside in the Special Collections Library. Upon request, Yee extracts a card, one that she describes as a favorite. The card lists two editorials that appeared in a publication called Liberty in 1892, and next to one of the listings Inglis wrote, “Jo Labadie’s very fine stand in regard to Berkman and Most.” (Alexander Berkman and Johann Most were anarchists who, unlike Labadie, advocated violence to encourage the masses to revolt. In 1892 Berkman attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, the chairman of Carnegie Steel Co. who had hired Pinkerton guards to attack workers engaged in the Homestead Strike. Labadie, a prolific writer, wrote an opinion piece on the incident and the larger circumstances surrounding it.)

Yee says she likes the card for the editorializing on Agnes’s part. She explains, “Most of the cards are straightforward bibliographical information, or information about particular people (for example, that someone gave a speech in Detroit and then met with local anarchists), but for this one she felt the need to put a bit of her own opinion in the records.”

Agnes Inglis was an unlikely radical. Born into a socially prominent, conservative Detroit family, she was more or less homebound, caretaker to her ill sister and her mother, until her late twenties, when their deaths left her an independent heiress, free to do as she wished. After some years as a student, and then a social worker, she was drawn toward the radicalism of figures like Emma Goldman, whom she met in 1913, and Jo Labadie, whom she met in 1916. She became active in the anarchist, labor and social movements of the time, holding Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) meetings at her house, and deploying her fortune in service of various radical causes. In the mid-1920s, her funds depleted, she turned her attention to Labadie’s collection, first as a volunteer (for a project that she thought would take six months) and later, when the university began to appreciate the value of the collection and its primary champion, as its first curator. For many years unpaid (she lived on an allowance from her brother James, who was to leave his estate, Inglis House, to the University of Michigan), she remained on the job, organizing the collection and expanding it some twentyfold by means of her own resources and contacts, until her death in 1952.

Today, in an era when card catalogs everywhere have been decommissioned and discarded (MLibrary retired its card catalog in 1988, and removed it altogether in February of 2010), what’s become known as “Agnes’s card catalog” remains, more than a half century after its utility as a finding tool was largely obviated by her death and the collection’s subsequent relocation. “It stays as long as I’m around,” says Julie Herrada, the current curator of the collection. In fact, according to Herrada, Agnes’s card catalog is now itself an important part of the archive, for what it reveals about the history of the collection as well as Inglis’s unique collection development and management methods. (See the slideshow below for samples from the card catalog.)

The transcription of Agnes’s card catalog is made possible by a grant from the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative (funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), and is part of a collaborative project to explore closer relationships among scholarly editing and library special collections, including The Emma Goldman Papers Project (University of California, Berkeley); The Margaret Sanger Papers (New York University); and The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers Project (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey).

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Last modified: 05/06/2011