Historical Records Survey (HRS) (1935)

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The WPA’s Historical Records Survey (HRS) began as part of the Federal Writers’ Program in 1935, became an independent part of Federal Project No. 1 in 1936, and then became part of the Research and Records Program in 1939 [1]. HRS offered job opportunities for “out-of-work historians, teachers, clerical workers, and others skilled in the humanities” [2]. The Survey was another important instance of Harry Hopkins’ credo that workers of all types and skills ought to be employed under the jobs programs of the New Deal.

The work of the HRS “consisted of locating, arranging, and cataloging historical records; of preparing and publishing inventories of these records for the use of historical and other students; and of transcribing, photographing, or otherwise preserving records of special historical value that were in danger of loss or destruction. These records were chiefly the archives of State, county, city, and town governments; but they also included church archives and other manuscript materials and early American imprints (books and newspapers)…” [3]. The Survey operated in every county in the country and operated under the guidance of the American Historical Association, the Joint Committee on Materials for Research, and officials from the Library of Congress and National Archives. Over a thousand volumes of work were published

The HRS made three lasting contributions: The preservation of records for scholarly research, the preservation of records for genealogical studies, and the cultivation of a greater interest in historic preservation itself. For example, the Indiana University Library contains a wide variety of materials compiled by HRS workers: “indexes of vital statistics, bibliographies, cemetery and newspaper indexes, the American Imprints Inventory, the Atlas of Congressional Roll Calls Project, a historical index of American musicians, surveys of portraits in public buildings, maritime records, a history of grazing, and Mormon diary transcripts” [4]. Similarly, the president of the Association of Professional Genealogists writes, “The boon for genealogists and other historians is that the surviving inventories and publications of the Historical Records Survey provide an invaluable roadmap to the availability and location of a wide number of historical records and manuscript materials in counties, churches, and archives across the United States” [5]. With respect to cultivating a greater interest in historic preservation, the WPA Final Report noted that, “As a result of the interest evoked by the [HRS], many States and communities provided new facilities for the care of historical records” [6].

Luther H. Evans, who would go on to become the tenth Librarian of Congress, served as the HRS’s director from 1935 to 1939 [7]. The HRS was terminated on February 1, 1943, pursuant to a Presidential decree of December 4, 1942, as the United States entered World War II [8].


(1) “69.5.6 Records of the Historical Records Survey,” National Archives and Records Administration, https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/069.html#69.5.6, accessed May 22, 2015. (2) “Historical Records Survey,” Indiana University Libraries, https://www.indiana.edu/~libsalc/newdeal/records.html, accessed May 22, 2015. (3) Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, p. 67. (4) See note 2. (5) Kimberly Powell, “Historical Records Survey of the Works Progress Administration: An Important Resource for Genealogists and Historians,” https://genealogy.about.com/od/history_research/fl/Historical-Records-Survey-WPA.htm, accessed May 22, 2015. (6) See note 3. (7) “Luther Evans – Previous Librarians of Congress,” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/about/about-the-librarian/previous-librarians-of-congress/luther-evans/, accessed May 22, 2015. (8) See note 1.

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