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The First Relief Projects

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A travel poster produced by the WPA Art Project in New York City for the U. S. Travel Bureau. Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Under the leadership of Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt's "minister of relief," aid to America's unemployed began in mid-1933, only months after the new administration took office. Between 1933 and 1935, when much of the New Deal relief administration was consolidated under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Library of Congress was quick to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the new programs, usually because of initiatives seized by individual division chiefs. For example, in 1933 Leicester B. Holland, chief of the Division of Fine Arts, saw to it that the Library was designated as the repository of the records produced by the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), a work relief project started under the Civil Works Administration (CWA). George F. Schwegmann, director of the Library's Union Catalog Project, served as an adviser to many relief projects, and made certain that the collections and catalogs of the Library of Congress benefited from those projects whenever possible.

With support from Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam, individual chiefs also applied for and received financial help for processing and indexing the collections in their custody. Characteristically the funding was tentative, with employees being added and dropped on short notice, so administrators had to move quickly. A project to update an index to portraits in periodicals that was published in 1906 by the Library of Congress for the American Library Association is a good example. Using Civil Works Administration funds, the project was started in the Fine Arts Division in late 1933 with twenty-three part-time workers. By January 24, 1934, the project employed fifty-one indexers, but on February 16 the staff was cut by 50 percent, and then it was cut by 10 percent each week until all work ceased on May 1. Nevertheless, over 140,000 index cards were prepared during this period, making the index a valuable tool that, suitably updated, is available today to researchers in the Prints and Photographs Division. Another useful WPA index, also available to researchers in the same division, is a card index to early American architectural illustrations, compiled by six workers on loan from the Department of Interior.

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The Treasury Department's Relief Art Program, funded by the WPA, decorated federal buildings with murals and sculpture. The mural artist is working in New York City. National Archives and Records Service.

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Chicago's Public Library Week was a forerunner of today's National Library Week. Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Other Library of Congress divisions benefited as well. Several Civil Works Administration workers assisted in sorting periodicals and other publications in the Smithsonian deposit, the basis of the Library's rapidly growing science collection. In the Map Division a grant during 1934 from the administration enabled one Rebecca M. Taliaferro to catalog 655 of the Library's Civil War maps. In 1935 the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) provided funds for a project that would transcribe books into braille, an effort that was continued under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration and strengthened the collections of the Library's Project for Books for the Adult Blind. Furthermore, in 1936 the New York WPA began constructing talking-book phonographs for use by the Library of Congress. By 1942, when the project ended, over twenty-three thousand talking-book machines had been made.

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Charles Golphin, age 10, drew this poster illustration for an exhibition of children's art in Ohio. Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

The Law Library provides a final example of early relief assistance to the Library of Congress and of the erratic nature of that help. In 1934 FERA provided the Law Library with eighty part-time workers to help inventory and process collections, prepare want lists, and index court records. In 1935 the size of the staff was cut to twenty-nine, and then the project was halted altogether at the end of the year. Three years later, fifty relief workers were assigned to the Law Library to resume the work and take on the new task of starting an "index on constitutional law." By the end of the year the temporary help had disappeared, but the work has since been carried out by the Law Library staff.

The funds squeezed out of the Civil Works and Federal Emergency Relief Administrations for cultural projects were relatively meager, however, for neither of these agencies emphasized relief for unemployed white collar workers or support for the arts, even though a small project within the CWA, the Public Works of Art Project, did employ over three thousand artists. But in the spring of 1935 the Works Progress Administration was created, and it clearly provided for aid to white collar or "professional persons." The WPA, a massive effort to provide "socially useful" work for over 3.5 million "employables," absorbed the FERA (which had already absorbed much of the CWA) and included funds specifically for unemployed artists, musicians, actors, and writers. The four projects aimed at these groups were designated Federal Project Number One (and referred to as Federal One), and four national directors were chosen. Holger Cahill directed the Federal Art Project (FAP), Nikolai Sokoloff the Federal Music Project (FMP), Hallie Flanagan the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), and Harry G. Alsberg the Federal Writers' Project, (FWP). In October 1936 the Historical Records Survey (HRS), formerly part of the writers' project, became an independent project under Federal One, and its director, Luther H. Evans, joined this remarkable group of individualistic national "cultural directors." The five national projects of Federal One, which existed alongside less glamorous state-sponsored projects, soon caught the public's imagination and in the process helped create a new audience for the arts. In Fortune magazine in May 1937, writer and poet Archibald MacLeish noted that these national projects also piled up "the kind of raw cultural material-the raw material of new creative work-which is so necessary to artists and particularly to artists in a new country."

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The Federal Art Project sponsored work in all the major visual art fields. This print by Doris Spiegel is title Selling Candles. Fine Prints Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

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Yasuo Kuniyoski's The Tight-Rope Walker was produced while the artist was employed by the New York City Federal Art Project. Fine Prints Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

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Pugnacity, a work Raphael Soyer did when he was a WPA artist. Fine Prints Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

An especially close link developed between Luther H. Evan's Historical Records Survey and the Library of Congress. Between 1936 and 1940 the survey furnished the Library of Congress with historians to help prepare card indexes to major manuscript collection, including the papers of several presidents of the United States. And a Russian scholar supported by the HRS began sorting and translating important documents in the massive collection of Russian Church Archives from Alaska.

Historical Records Survey workers also made important contributions to the national union catalog, located in the Library. Local and state HRS projects became a major source of lists of books, periodicals, and newspapers, all added to this enormous file. In 1937 survey staff began microfilming the shelflists of federal libraries in the District of Columbia. The microfilm containing 363,000 cards for over six hundred thousand titles, was received by the Union Catalog Project the next year and transcribed onto cards in subsequent years with help from other HRS workers. Location Symbols for Libraries in the United States, prepared by the Union Catalog Project with WPA help, was published by the WPA in 1939.


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