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The Legacy

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This sketch for a vaudeville stage set is by scenic designer James Morcom. Library of Congress Federal Theatre Project Collection at George Mason University Libraries, Fairfax, Virginia.

In the years following the sudden death of the Library of Congress WPA Project, several reviews and partial inventories of the unprocessed WPA materials took place. The task was complicated because new materials kept arriving, at least for a few years. After each review, additional materials were added to the Library's collections or distributed to other institutions. In 1944, for example, over five hundred cubic feet of administrative records were transferred to the National Archives.

In 1949 Frances T. Bourne of the National Archives surveyed the large collection of unprocessed WPA project materials, then stored on the fourth floor of the Library's Annex Building. She was dismayed, and concluded: "Because of the bulk of this material and its present condition, it appears unlikely that the Library will ever have the time, money, or personnel to finish the processing of this material ... unless another WPA project is established." Furthermore, since she felt that much of the material was either of questionable research value or duplicated elsewhere, Miss Bourne recommended "unconditional and immediate destruction" of 958 cubic feet of material, or 63 percent of what she surveyed. Library of Congress officials, led by arts project veterans and division chiefs Harold Spivacke and George Schwegmann, disputed Bourne's conclusions and argued for retention, even if it meant continued storage. Luther H. Evans, the former Historical Records Survey head and assistant to Librarian MacLeish, was by now the Librarian of Congress; to no one's surprise, he agreed with his chiefs.

In the next decade, however, the Library of Congress ran out of space. In 1957 an important precedent was set when L. Quincy Mumford, who succeeded Evans as Librarian of Congress, agreed to deposit a portion of the American Imprints Inventory sponsored by the Historical Records Survey at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. The next year duplicate copies of all WPA publications were distributed to libraries in forty-five states. By 1964 there no longer was adequate space on Capitol Hill for storage and the remaining fifteen hundred cubic feet of WPA arts project materials, primarily from the records, were stored in a warehouse leased by the Library in Middle River, Maryland, east of Baltimore. The material was unavailable to scholars, a situation Jerre Mangione justly complained about in The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943 (1972).

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The children's unit of the Federal Theatre Project pioneered in using adults, rather than children, to act in plays for young audiences. This stage sketch is for Pinocchio, one of the most popular productions. Library of Congress Federal Theatre Project Collection at George Mason University Libraries, Fairfax, Virginia.

During the past decade the increased interest among scholars in all aspects of the arts projects stimulated the Library to place parts of the remaining collection on permanent deposit at other institutions, most notably Rutgers University Library for the American Imprints Inventory and George Mason University for the Federal Theatre Project collection, and to renew its own efforts to sort, process, and make available all remaining items. The opening of the James Madison Memorial Building in 1980 provided the space necessary to accelerate this effort, and a special project was mounted, albeit on a far smaller scale than any WPA project. In 1980 several of the major WPA collections were described in a new book, Special Collections in the Library of Congress. Another publication, Pickaxe and Pencil: References for the Study of the WPA (1982), describes the arts projects and lists sources of information about archival collections containing WPA material. Finally, in early 1983, the Library of Congress's renewed effort to complete the sorting and processing of all the federal arts materials in its possession came to a successful conclusion.

Brief descriptions of the major WPA arts projects collections at the Library of Congress follow. Other arts project legacies have been left to libraries, historical societies, museums, and government offices throughout our country. It is a remarkable accumulation of "the raw material of new creative work," as Archibald MacLeish called it, and a heritage that librarians, archivists, and scholars are still discovering and learning to appreciate.

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Gepetto and Pinocchio on stage, a New York production. National Archives and Records Service.


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