Monday, 27 January 2020

The Tamiment Library (2004)

The Tamiment Library
Written By: Andrew H Lee
Date: September 2004
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 22: Autumn 2004 

The New York University’s Tamiment Library is one of the most important repositories in the United States for the study of Labour and the Left.

Its history and fortunes are closely tied to those movements and their rather different trajectories in the United States.

The library began as a crucial part of New York City’s Rand School of Social Science, the first major school for workers in the United States. The Rand School was founded in 1906 by the American Socialist Society - a group of socialist intellectuals that included Charles Beard, Morris Hillquit, William Ghent, and George Herron - who wished to found a workers’ school yet keep it independent of the Socialist Party.

Modeled after Ruskin College, the school quickly established close contacts with unions in the garment trades and embarked upon an ambitious educational and cultural program. The library also supported and aided the research needs of the Socialist Party and trade unions. Its instructors were some of the most renowned figures of labour and the left, including Beard, James Harvey Robinson, Stephen Vincent Benet, Scott Nearing, John Dewey, and Bertrand Russell.

In 1917 the school had outgrown its space and moved to a facility on East 15th Street, close to Union Square. The new space included room for an auditorium, bookstore, cafeteria, gymnasium, and the library and was modelled after similar workers and radical institutions in Europe. But 1917 also saw two events that had major impacts on the school: the U.S. entrance into World War I and the Russian Revolutions of 1917.

The U.S. Socialist Party never supported the war and consequently was fiercely persecuted. This continued after the war as a direct result of the Bolshevik Revolution and anti–radical hysteria. In 1919 police raided the school, seized its records (and safe), and tried to close it. The Rand School fought back in the courts and eventually, with the election of Al Smith as governor, the persecution ended.

At the same time the U.S. Socialist party was going through the same upheaval as the rest of the socialist parties. In 1919 the party split and the Rand School lost a number of instructors and staff who supported the Bolsheviks while the school itself remained firmly in the right–wing of the party. While the attacks by the state hurt the school financially, its courses and cultural offerings continued to be popular.

Throughout the twenties the Rand School was able to meet its financial needs through a vigorous and varied series of fund raising activities. Lacking the direct financial support of a political party or a trade union, the school came to rely on the income from its affiliated summer camp, Camp Tamiment, located in the Pocono region of Pennsylvania. During this period the Rand School named its library the Meyer London Memorial Library, in honour of the Socialist Congressman who died in 1926 in a streetcar accident.

The United States Congress enacted a number of laws intended to benefit veterans after World War II, including providing funding for a college education, enabling vast numbers of men who had previously been unable to attend colleges or universities to continue their education. As a consequence, institutions like the Rand School lost a significant portion of their audience. At the beginning the school had enrolled almost 5,000 students a year and by 1946 nearly 13,000 attended programs and classes. After 1946 the enrolment dropped off precipitously and the income from Camp Tamiment was needed more than ever.

Camp Tamiment was also one of the most modern and successful camps in a popular region for vacations, drawing in people who were not interested in the left or labour. Among its offerings was summer stock theatre and several well known performers could be seen at the Camp, including Woody Allen and Danny Kaye. Neil Simon and other playwrights would conduct summer rehearsals at the camp before taking plays to Broadway.

While other local camps paid taxes, Tamiment did not because, as part of the Rand School, it was exempt as an educational institution. A five–year struggle ensued as the Camp sought to acquire the London Library in order to preserve its tax–exempt status while withholding financial support from the school.

In 1956 the People’s Education Camp Society acquired the school and the library. It dissolved the school and merged the education and cultural activities into the Tamiment Institute. Nonetheless, by 1963 they had lost their tax case with the Internal Revenue Service and as a consequence sold the camp to private investors, renamed the library the Tamiment Institute Library, and gave it to New York University, where it remains today.

In 1977 in cooperation with the New York City Central Labor Council, the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives was founded to collect non–current records of New York City trade unions.
Open to the public, the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives is a significant centre for research on the left and labour.

The library has several thousand serial titles, including short lived titles such as the two issues of Left. There is a large book collection, including the first editions of classic texts such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Big Bill Haywood’s copy of G.D.H. Cole’s The World of Labour. The pamphlet and vertical file collection is extensive, numbering close to one million items such as a Yippie t-shirt iron–on decal.

The collection also has the archival records of several hundred important organizations and individuals. Significant individual collections include the papers of Cedric and Sally Belfrage, Daniel Bell, George Breitman, Murray Bookchin, Leslie Cagan, Harold Cruse, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Michael Harrington, Steve Nelson, Max Shachtman, Baruch Charney Vladeck, and David Thoreau Wieck.

Organization records include Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Actors Equity, American Committee for Cultural Freedom, Communication Workers of America, Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, District Council 65, Jewish Labor Committee, National Organization of Women (NY Chapter), Revolutionary Communist Party, Socialist Party, and WHAM (Women’s Health Action Mobilization). The Oral History of the American Left is housed at the Tamiment, and there is an extensive collection of buttons, posters, and other pictorial material.

For more information, please consult the Tamiment’s web pages at

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