The Making of a WPA Inventory

The New Deal cared a lot about books--producing, consuming, maintaining them.


The New Deal cared a lot about books–producing, consuming, maintaining them.  SourceWordPress, 2010

I recently completed a new project for the Living New Deal: a list of about 1,500 writings, created between 1935 and 1943, by the Federal Writers’ Project and the WPA Writers’ Program. The writings include both published and unpublished items, and the titles came primarily from two sources: a list compiled by a Florida book seller in the 1970s and a list created by a private firm working in collaboration with the Library of Congress in 1987. Our list, which also includes contemporary scholarship, is organized alphabetically—by state and then by title—and uses a similar (but even more basic) style as the sources listed above. The goal was to make it reader friendly.

 

I learned two things while I was working on this project. First, creating an inventory of 1,500 writings is somewhere between less-than-fun and merciless torture. The second thing I learned is that the writers of the WPA wrote on a stunning variety of topics – even more topics than I had thought. We’re all familiar with the popular American Guide Series, detailing attractions and history in all states and select cities. But consider some of these other titles, which speak to local interests and idiosyncrasies: National Guard of Wyoming, Wisconsin Circus Lore, Churches of Roanoke, Baseball in Old Chicago, Recreational Activities: Christmas Tree Ornaments, Winter Hikes, Air Raid Warden’s Manual, Seminole Indian Canoes, and Gumbo Ya Ya.

 

And, really, this list has plenty of room to grow. For example, we could add research reports by WPA workers (traffic studies, disease studies, hydrographic surveys, etc.); books transcribed into Braille by WPA workers; or inventories of church records created by the WPA’s Historical Records Survey to name a few. Or our list could evolve into a larger “New Deal Inventory” that would include reports and writings by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and more. How large could such a list grow? 3,000 items? 4,000? 10,000? Perhaps one day we’ll have a list of every report, publication, manuscript, bulletin, and inventory made by FDR’s alphabet soup of agencies. Check out what we already have in our Bibliography.

Brent McKee is a Living New Deal Research Associate (the first, in fact!) and core member of the LND team. He lives in West Virginia

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