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Collection Federal Theatre Project, 1935 to 1939

Amassing American "Stuff": The Library of Congress and the Federal Arts Project of the 1930s

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.

Americans have always been uneasy about the relationship of their government to culture and the creative spirit. We have no central ministry of art or culture, nor does anyone advocate one. Direct government support to scientists, artists, and scholars is a phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century. Moreover, the relatively small amount of money granted each year to artists, scholars, and cultural institutions through the National endowments for the Arts and Humanities is distributed carefully and almost begrudgingly. But in fact the U.S. government, through institutions such as the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Department of the Interior, has a long and proud history as a supporter of the arts and sciences. The story of the Library of Congress and the federal arts projects of the 1930s reflects the ambiguity of the relationship between the U.S. government and the arts. It is more significant, however, as a case study of how one government agency, taking advantage of tradition, circumstance, outside help, and a healthy dose of luck, has contributed substantially to American culture.

Although it never has been officially designated the American national library, by law and by tradition the Library of Congress has become the official repository for much of our nation's recorded culture. The laws that transformed the Library of Congress from a legislative institution into the nation's foremost accumulator of printed Americana were passed in the years immediately after the Civil War. First came the copyright laws of 1865, 1867, and especially the law of 1870, which brought two copies of every copyrighted book, pamphlet, map, print, photograph, and piece of music into the Library-without cost to the Library. The institution's role as the library of the American government was greatly strengthened when it acquired, by official transfer in 1866, the forty-thousand-volume library of the Smithsonian Institution. Then the next year it was designated the U.S. depository for documents received through the international exchange system. The first major congressional appropriation for the purchase of an Americana collection came in 1867 when Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford persuaded Congress to spend $100,000 for the personal library of archivist and collector Peter Force. By 1870, thanks to the copyright laws and the acquisition of the Smithsonian and Force libraries, the Library of Congress was both the principal government library and the largest library in the United States.

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.

In a maturing nation, precedents such as these have a momentum of their own-especially when they take place in a period of rapid growth and prosperity. In 1897, long after it had run out of shelf space, the Library of Congress moved out of the U.S. Capitol and into its own building, a monumental structure on Capitol Hill that itself symbolized American cultural aspirations. Six years later President Theodore Roosevelt made the Library of Congress the repository of the person and official papers of the Founding Fathers. In 1923 the Library became the home of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Soon thereafter gifts from private donors enabled the Library of Congress to become a sponsor of cultural activities as well as a repository of national cultural documents: it recorded and collected American folksongs and folklore, sponsored chamber music concerts, commissioned new musical works, and hired prominent scholars to help "interpret" it collections to the public. The Great Depression momentarily halted its growth, but once the work relief programs inaugurated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt were expanded to include cultural projects, the Library of Congress took on a new and important role. On the strength of its unparalleled Americana collections and the momentum of its recent successes in cultural entrepreneurship, it became the key agency for organizing and preserving the cultural record of depression-era America.

"Pneumonia Strikes" and "John is Not Really Dull" Health was a popular subject for Federal Art Project posters, many of which are forerunners of today's public service advertisements. Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

John Y. Cole is executive director of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. This article is based on files in the Library of Congress Archives and on the annual reports of the Librarian of Congress, 1936-41. This article was originally published in the Fall 1983 issue of the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress. The Federal Theatre Project Collection was on deposit at George Mason University at that time.