Researching New Deal Sites

We have prepared two guides for New Deal research, which can be read below or downloaded
Guidelines for New Deal Research  |  Research Guide to Selected WPA Records at the National Archives

1. Guidelines for New Deal Research, or Tips for Unearthing and Documenting New Deal Public Works   Download as PDF

The Living New Deal Map: You should start with the Living New Deal map and database, which can be searched by place, to find sites in your area. But even sites that have been documented there can use additional photographs and information to complete the record. So begin with our map and don’t forget to come back to it to add things to existing sites, as well as sending in new site information.

What To Look For: Most New Deal buildings are public edifices like post offices, city halls and schools; other typical public works are overpasses, amphitheaters, and recreation facilities, like pools. Large works like dams, bridges and tunnels are readily apparent. Many public parks are New Deal, full of CCC-built trails, campgrounds, and picnic areas. The CCC and WPA planted billions of forest trees and did rural improvements like repairing fences, laying culverts and building small dams. The least obvious New Deal public works are sidewalks, street trees, sewers, water treatment plants, street widening and paving, small rock walls, etc. The Living New Deal websites has a list of New Deal agencies – it was not just the WPA, as many think.

Internet Searches: Never underestimate the value of a simple Internet search to identify potential New Deal sites and structures, or to find more information on projects you have identified elsewhere. Try searching by location, project name and/or possible New Deal key words. For example: “Eureka CA school AND Works Progress Administration OR Public Works Administration OR Civilian Conservation Corps” Such searches can lead to newspaper articles, blog posts, books, online forums for history buffs, and more. As always with the Internet, be sure to evaluate the reliability of any links or resources you find.

Books & Journals: There are many books and articles written about the New Deal. Practically any level of research – archival, institutional, or informal – benefits from a look at what’s already in print. Some of these describe the New Deal’s work in a single state or area, such as Marjorie Barton’s Leaning on a Legacy: The WPA in Oklahoma or articles in academic journals like the Mississippi Valley Historical Review or California History. The Living New Deal website has a bibliography page with many valuable reference works (and we’re always looking for more, if you send us books and articles you’ve uncovered).

Public Libraries and University Archives: Check to see if the city or state library or a university/college library near you has a collection of New Deal era photographs or documents. The University of Maryland College Park Archives, for example, has an extensive trove of WPA photos and WPA administrative records. There are many dissertations and MA theses on the New Deal, and these can usually be found in university libraries whose catalogues are publically searchable – though not all are open to the public, alas. The Living New Deal website has a bibliography of dissertations and theses that a student prepared for us.

Newspaper Archives: During the New Deal era, many local newspapers documented the use of federal funds for municipal or regional building projects. Many such newspaper archives are digitized and available online; see, for example, http://www.pqarchiver.com/titles.html, http://www.newspapers.com/, and http://newspaperarchive.com/. These are subscription or pay- per-view archives, so check pricing and before paying be sure the vendor covers the newspaper you are interested in researching. Nearby public or university libraries may offer such vendor services free to their patrons. For archives that are not digitized, libraries often have microfilm rolls, and often these microfilm records are indexed to make research less burdensome.

State Historic Preservation Offices: See if your state has a state historic preservation office, then check to see if it has a database of historic and protected properties (hopefully, online). For example, Maryland Historical Trust maintains the “Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties” (http://www.mdihp.net/), which is keyword searchable with phrases like “Public Works Administration.” Call your state office and talk to people there to see if anyone has a special interest in New Deal era sites and whether any inventory of them exists.

Government Agencies & School Districts: Since many schools were built by New Deal agencies, check with local school districts to see if they have repositories of school records; for example, the Fort Worth Independent School District has its own archives/museum, the Billy W. Sills Center for Archives, which contains photo albums and school yearbooks from the era. Public works departments are another likely source of records, if they have kept their archives, as are other agencies that might have worked on New Deal programs, such as state forestry and highway departments, federal soil conservation offices, or (air)port authorities.

Historical Societies & Museums: Try contacting local historical societies and museums, which often have their own archives and might have New Deal era records and photos. They also have knowledgeable staff who can direct you to potential archives and experts in your area.

Historians and Other Experts: Local college professors, history teachers, archivists and librarians may know a lot about your community’s New Deal history, or know of other people in the area who do. Fellow New Deal enthusiasts are often walking encyclopedias.

The National Archives: The National Archives has many New Deal records from all across the country. The archives themselves are divided among many regional depositories, like the one just south of San Francisco. You never know what records are held where until you look. For example, there is a WPA Newspaper Clippings file at Archives II, near the University of Maryland College Park campus, has hundreds, perhaps thousands of projects, to be explored and researched. Unfortunately, as of 2013, most of the National Archives’ New Deal records are not digitized and thus only useful if you can physically visit the Archives. Happily, all documents in the National Archives are public property and not under copyright.

Personal Exploration: Walking or driving through a town/city, looking closely at the buildings, can sometimes yield New Deal treasures. New Deal public works can often be spotted by their architectural styles: Art Deco for civic buildings and Craftsman/Shingle Style for parks & rec buildings. New Deal murals are usually in Social Realist or American Regional style popular in the 1920s and 30s (for hints, see Wikipedia or other online guides to architectural styles). Be sure to search for (often hidden) plaques saying when and by whom a building was constructed (for a guide to New Deal agencies, go to the Living New Deal website). While not a particularly efficient method of research, it can be an enjoyable way to get out and about in your city.

What Do We Need?

The Living New Deal collects the following kinds of information on New Deal public works:

•The location by street address and/or GPS coordinates, by town, city, county and state.

•The current name and use of the building, bridge, park, etc.

•Photographs of the buildings/sites as they appear today, both exterior and interior, from several angles. The bigger the photo format (more pixels), the better.

•The date of construction and the New Deal agency responsible.

•The name of the architect, artist or builder responsible.

•Historic photographs of the sites under construction, just finished or in use in the past.

•Copies/scans/photos of archival documents.

•Stories told to you about the site by family, local officials or community members.

Please send you findings to us by mail, email or the online submission page

 

THANK YOU FOR BEING PART OF THE TEAM BUILDING THE LIVING NEW DEAL

REMEMBER: HISTORICAL SLEUTHING CAN BE FUN
If you have any questions, contact us at info@livingnewdeal.org

Prepared by Brent McKee, Dick Walker, Shaina Potts & John Elrick for THE LIVING NEW DEAL. September 2013

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2. Research Guide to WPA Records in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland (Archives II)   Download as PDF

This guide is meant to help researchers & volunteers who want to contribute to the Living New Deal map. I created this document in February o2013, so keep in mind that locations, processes, and policies are always subject to change. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide, but merely a “jump-start” to your research, so you can become familiar with the research process and the general locations of items before you start.  I focus here on WPA records, but there are many other New Deal records at Archives that are worth examining.
–Brent McKee

Getting Started

Archives II Website: Here you can find information on parking, food, bus service, Saturday shuttle service, research policies & procedures, etc.

Parking: I parked at the College Park Metro, and took the C8 Bus back and forth from the Archives. There were always plenty of parking spaces at the College Park Metro garage (even after 9am) and the bus ride is fairly short. You also have the option of (trying) to park at the Archives’ parking garage, satellite parking lot, or a few street parking spaces. My impression is that if there are no special events or meetings at the Archives, you have a good chance of getting a parking spot. So, try parking at the Archives first (you might save some money, since it’s free), but be prepared to park at a metro station in case all spots are taken (the College Park station is not far away).

Bus Service: The Archives is a regular stop on the C8 Bus route.  There are more transportation options listed on the Archives’ website.

After Arriving at the Archives: When you arrive at the Archives and enter the building, you will go through a security checkpoint & metal detector. After that, you will go to a room immediately to the right of the security area to watch a brief researcher orientation and to obtain your researcher identification card.

Researcher Locker Room: The Archives is very particular about what you can take to the research areas, so you’ll be utilizing the researcher locker room quite a bit. The locker room is one level down from the security and orientation areas.

WPA Records

Based on two weeks of research at the Archives, I feel that there are three groups of records that can yield an especially large number of WPA sites & structures that still exist today.

These are (1) The Microfilmed Index to WPA Projects, (2) the WPA Primary File, and (3) the WPA Newspaper Clippings File.

Microfilmed Index to WPA Projects

These records are on the fourth floor of the Archives. They are part of Record Group 69, and are in cabinets 45 & 46. Looking into the Microfilm Room, these cabinets are against the back wall, left-hand side. The indices you will be looking at will be T935 (1935-37), T936 (1938), and T937 (1939-42).

To find the right microfilm roll for the state/jurisdiction you are researching, there is a
binder near the front of the Microfilm Room titled: “Special List.” Ask a staff person to help you locate this binder. Inside is a state-by-state breakdown of microfilm rolls, e.g., T935, Roll 12, Idaho – Illinois.

In addition to being broken down state-by-state, the microfilmed records are also broken down by county, and then by municipality. Here is a picture of one of the records:

record

When looking for projects, be on the lookout for words/phrases like “project rescinded” or “superseded by.” This could mean that the project never occurred, and so will require more in-depth research. But don’t assume that the project did not occur; sometimes WPA projects were terminated or rejected, only to be re-submitted and approved later. It is also possible that a project never occurred even though there are no apparent problems with the record you are looking at. WPA projects were frequently terminated, for various reasons. Hence, it is important to validate the information you are looking at with subsequent research (which could be 3 something as simple as an Internet search or something more time consuming, like a visit to the site/structure).

WPA Primary File & WPA Newspaper Clippings File

These two files have a multitude of newspaper clippings, press releases, narrative reports, photos, etc. The records are stored in well over 100 boxes, with multiple files in each box. I found them to be a gold mine of information on WPA projects across the country. The only drawback is that some areas are not well represented, e.g., Maryland and Washington, D.C.

To find these records go to room 2000, “Textual Research” on the second floor of the
Archives. Next, go to the “Research Consultation Room.” Find two binders: A white binder, “RG 69, Records of the WPA, Info Division,” and a blue binder, “RG 69, Work Projects Administration (WPA).” The white binder is a finding aid, and the blue binder is a guide to help you fill out the Archives’ record request form.

The first step is to find the records you want examine in the white binder, and then match the “entry number” given for that record to the same entry number in the blue binder. Note: There are a lot of records shown in these binders; the WPA Primary File and the WPA Newspaper Clippings File are just two of many, so you have to look specifically for them. Once you match these entry numbers you are ready to fill out a request form. If you have never filled out a request form, ask a staff person for assistance. They will show you how to fill out a form, and start you on the process of learning the record retrieval process.

Once you have your records, and find a desk to work at, you’ll discover that there are numerous procedures and rules. Don’t be intimidated by them; you will learn them quickly.

Everyone goes through the same process of familiarization. (I was reminded by staff to wear white gloves when handling photos, use the proper place holder, and to work off the desk not the cart!)

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