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Federal Writers' Project

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american guide series
American Guide Series [poster]
Prints & Photographs Division.
LC-USZC2-5780


The Federal Writers' Project was created in 1935 as part of the United States Work Progress Administration to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. Originally, the purpose of the project was to produce a series of sectional guide books under the name American Guide, focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States. Eventually new programs were developed and projects begun under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration were absorbed by the Writers' Project. From its inception in 1935 through late 1939, the Federal Writers' Project was directed by Henry Alsberg.

Online Materials

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 - 1940
These interviews or "life histories," were compiled and transcribed by the staff of the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers' Project for the U.S. Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration (WPA) from 1936-40. The Library of Congress collection includes 2,900 documents representing the work of over 300 writers from 24 states. More...

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938
This collection contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.

Related Collections

The Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress
A selection of ten plays written by Hurston (1891-1960), author, anthropologist, and folklorist. Deposited in the United States Copyright Office between 1925 and 1944, most of the plays remained unpublished and unproduced until they were rediscovered in the Copyright Deposit Drama Collection in 1997. The plays reflect Hurston's life experience, travels, and research, especially her study of folklore in the African-American South. Totaling 1,068 hundred images, the scripts are housed in the Library's Manuscript, Music, and Rare Books and Special Collections Divisions. Hurston's work was influenced, in part, by her experience working for the Florida Federal Writers' Project.

Manuscript Collections

Library of Congress

The Federal Writers' Project materials in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division are part of a larger collection titled, United States Work Projects Administration: A Register of Its Records in The Library of Congress. This collection also contains the records of the Historical Records Survey and the Research Library of the United States Work Projects Administration. Please contact the Manuscript Division Reading Room for further information.

Scope and Content Note

Federal Writers' Project of the United States Work Projects Administration
The records of the Federal Writers' Project of the United States Work Projects Administration span the years 1524-1947, with the bulk of the items created from 1935 to 1942. They are comprised of correspondence, memoranda, field reports, notes, drafts of essays, lists, drawings, maps, graphs, newspaper clippings, transcripts of documents, oral testimony in the form of life histories, folklore material, inventories, statements, critical appraisals, speeches, administrative records, instructions, scripts, plays, and surveys. Material prior to 1935 consists mostly of transcripts made or copied for references purposes or for preservation. The files of the Federal Writers' Project are arranged in the following series: Administrative File, American Guide File, Folklore Project, Social-Ethnic Studies, Special Studies and Projects, Negro Studies Project, Slave Narrative Project, Miscellaneous Records, Miscellany and Printed Matter. A small Addition was made to the records in 1998.

The Federal Writers' Project was created in 1935 as part of the United States Work Progress Administration to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. Originally, the purpose of the project was to produce a series of sectional guide books under the name American Guide, focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States. Eventually the new programs developed and projects begun under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration were absorbed by the writers' project.

From its inception in 1935 through late 1939, the Federal Writers' Project was directed by Henry Alsberg, a former lawyer who became interested in the theater as a writer and as a director of off-Broadway productions. His correspondence makes up the bulk of letters in the collection. Associates who also appear as project correspondents include Merle Colby, George Cronin, Joseph Gaer, Reed Harris, and Claire Laning. Among the folklorists represented are Benjamin Botkin and John A. Lomax. Poets and writers whose works appear in the records include, Nelson Algren, Sterling Brown, Jack Conroy, and Richard Wright.

The Administrative File contains correspondence of Alsberg, dated mostly from 1939, and instructional matter reflecting the operation of the program. It supplements the Federal Writers' Project administrative records held by the National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 69. A preliminary inventory, the Records of the Federal Writers' Project Work Projects Administration, 1935-44, was compiled by Katherine H. Davidson, in 1953.

The American Guide File, the largest series, includes research data and drafts of writings which went into producing state guide books. The records reflect topics such as local history, folklore, economic development, scenic areas, places of interest, local lore, facts, and tours. The books were initiated to stimulate travel to bolster the economy during the Great Depression.

Other series in the Federal Writers' Project Records reflect areas of interest developed by the project: rural and urban folklore, including individual narratives and life histories; studies of customs of social and ethnic groups; source materials regarding African Americans; testimony of ex-slaves and slave-related material including copies of purchase agreements and sale advertisements; and a compilation of printed matter now on microfilm.

Link disclaimerExternal Collections

Many of the administrative records of the Federal Writers' Project are held by the National Archives and Records Administration in Records of the Federal Writers' Project [FWP], a subgroup of Records of the Work Projects Administration [WPA], Record Group 69, as are the administrative records of the Historical Records Survey, which may be found in the subgroup Records of the Historical Records Survey.

Note: The Federal Writers' Project was administered at multiple levels--from the central office in Washington, D.C., and also from regional, state, and district offices. Related materials may often be found in state archives, libraries and historical societies.

Educational Materials/Guides

Collection Connections
These guides provide activity ideas for teachers for using materials from the collections to develop critical thinking skills.

Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives by Norman R.Yetman

"These Are Our Lives at 75" (Library of Congress Webcast, 2014 )

A Library of Congress Books & Beyond program honoring the The 75th anniversary of the publication of "These Are Our Lives," a book of life histories from the Federal Writers' Project and a seminal volume from the New Deal era.

Exhibitions

From: The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History & Culture
An online exhibit marking the publication of The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture.

American Treasures: America Eats

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  September 30, 2015
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