Guidelines for New Deal Research, or Tips for Unearthing and Documenting New Deal Public Works


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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 [email protected]

Prepared by Brent McKee, Dick Walker, Shaina Potts & John Elrick for The Living New Deal. September 2013

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