By Bridget Bihm-Manuel –
In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to alleviate the unemployment caused by the Great Depression. It was primarily a public works program and the laborers who participated were responsible for the construction of thousands of bridges, buildings, parks, roads, and other structures across the country. Writers and artists also worked under the WPA, however. The Federal Writers Project (FWP), in particular, employed writers, editors, historians, photographers, sound recorders, and researchers, who documented the history of each state and created a series of books collectively known as the American Guide Series.
The Florida unit of the Federal Writers Program, headed by Carita Doggett Corse, was among the most successful and productive. Among its writers were Zora Neale Hurston, a well-known novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist, praised for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Stetson Kennedy, who would in a few years time win acclaim for his first work on Florida, Palmetto Leaves. The presence of these writers and other talents ultimately made Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, published in 1939, one of the best and most professionally produced volumes in the American Guide Series. In addition, the Florida Federal Writers Project produced over ninety other publications.
The program created a huge cache of research materials, files, and draft writings, and when the it finally came to an end in 1942, copies of these typescripts ended up in archives, including the Library of Congress, the Florida Historical Society, Special Collections at Jacksonville University, the University of South Florida, and at the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, the University of Florida.
In 2017, the Yonge Library began digitizing its collection from the Florida Federal Writers Program, partnering with Family Search and the Internet Archive to digitize materials related to genealogy and local history. The typescripts at the Yonge Library had been organized and bound into volumes, and there are over three hundred of these volumes in the collection. They represent a major repository of folk culture and folk traditions gathered by the project; oral history interviews, including interviews with African Americans who grew up under slavery, and who could tell their stories and experiences in the 1930s; and extensive county and city histories. Preparing the volumes for digitization was really the first modern assessment of the contents, which in many cases had not been added to the electronic library catalog, and which was often inconsistently cataloged.
As part of the digitization effort, all catalog entries had to be reviewed for accuracy and completeness. Digitization has also been an important step in preserving the materials and making them more accessible. Most of the typescripts had become brittle over the years, and could only be handled and used in the Special Collections research room at the university. Creating a digital version therefore became a priority.
Currently there are over one hundred volumes of typescripts available through the UF Digital Collections website. The remainder of the typescripts are in the process of being cataloged or scanned, and work will continue to make the entire collection available.
“Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) (1935).” The Living New Deal, November 18, 2016. https://livingnewdeal.org/glossary/federal-writers-project-fwp-1935-1943/
“First Hand Stories.” Florida Historical Society, https://myfloridahistory.org/webextras/webextras/68
“WPA Stories.” Florida Memory. https://www.floridamemory.com/discover/historical_records/wpa/