SIS student brings UAW history to the public with support of scholarship

The Michael Wells Digital Librarianship Endowed Scholars Fund was established to preserve UAW and Damon Keith collections utilizing digital technologies. School of Information Sciences student Katherine Okonowski was selected to receive the scholarship opportunity in 2019.

Katie Okonowski
Katie Okonowski

Okonowski, the first student to receive the scholarship, was chosen for her interest and experience in archival administration and digital librarianship.

“In addition to completing all of the archive classes at Wayne State, Katie has had great experience from her internships and practicums at repositories around Detroit,” said Gavin Strassel, who supervised the project. “She is extremely professional and driven and was able to take on even more responsibilities than we originally planned.”

Strassel is the archivist of the United Auto Workers (UAW) working at the Walter P. Reuther Library with the union’s official archives. He collects, arranges, describes, preserves, and digitizes the records of the UAW and its numerous local union affiliates.

With Strassel’s oversight, Okonowski worked to process, digitize and create a digital exhibit for the artifacts and audiovisual materials of the Roy Reuther Papers at Wayne State’s Walter P. Reuther Library. Roy Reuther, brother of Walter P. Reuther, was an early leader within the autoworkers union movement and an influential figure in American politics. Though his papers were processed at the Reuther Library decades ago, the materials within the Roy Reuther Papers had been inaccessible to the general public.

“To delve into this history was a great experience. I understood the role of UAW, but I didn’t really know much more about it before this project,” said Okonowski. “It was such an interesting time for activism and industrialization in the city.”

The hands-on experience and the opportunity to work with different digitization systems was beneficial to Okonowski who hopes to one day be a university archivist. It also gave her valuable skills that she can use in her current role as a corporate archivist.

Roy Reuther
Roy Reuther

Okonowski worked so efficiently that the Roy Reuther project was completed ahead of schedule. A relative of Jack Conway – Walter Reuther’s longtime assistant – had contacted Strassel to see if the Reuther Library would be interested in Conway’s materials. Conway was an influential political and social activist in his own right who worked to launch housing, Head Start and Job Corps programs under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

The timing was fortuitous. Okonowski was able to complete both the Roy Reuther and Jack Conway projects.

Jack Conway
Jack Conway

“It was great to be able to tell the donor that not only would the materials be processed, but they would also be online and available to the public,” said Strassel. “It means a lot to the family when you can take their loved one’s personal papers and present them in a public-facing exhibit that shows the accomplishments of that family member.”   

Okonowski had a hand in every part of both projects from start to finish and is thankful for the opportunity. “It was a fantastic experience. Not only is it great to put on a resume, but the projects have provided me with a physical product that I can use to build my portfolio,” she said. “I’m very thankful to Gavin for his mentorship and I’m really glad to have had this experience.”

The Michael Wells Digital Librarianship Scholarship Fund is named in honor of Michael Sullivan Wells, a member of the Wayne State Library System Board of Visitors and former president of UAW Local 2200. Wells, an alumnus of the School of Information Sciences, spent the majority of his career at the Detroit Public Library where he served in a variety of positions and developed many programs focused on helping economically disadvantaged and underserved populations.

Okonowski's projects are available to view at the links below. 

Roy Reuther: A Brotherly Spirit and Shrewd Mind - Made with Omeka-S

Jack Conway: A Career in Images - Made on the Reuther Library's Drupal site

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