Works Progress Administration & Genealogy: Historical Records Survey

The last section of this series about Works Progress Administration projects is the Historical Records Survey, which isn’t part of the original Federal Project Number One, which encompassed the Federal Art, Music, Theatre and Writers Projects.

It originally began as part of the Writers Project in 1935 and became a separate entity in 1936.

The starting point to understand just how vast this collection is NARA’s Records of the Work Projects Administration (WPA). The WPA collection is found in Record Group 69 and much of it has not been digitized.

There is a Library of Congress Web Guide, but it is to the Manuscripts Collection.

 Part of the Manuscripts Collection is the Historical Records Survey of the United Stat4es Works Progress Administration. It is found towards the bottom of the Web Guide and I’ve noted it with the red arrow.

Part of the description of the collection states: The records consist of correspondence, memoranda, reports, lists, surveys, instructional manuals, guides, personnel records, data sheets, reports, notes, newspaper articles, transcripts of documents, catalog entries, and index cards.

Further: It surveyed and indexed selections of manuscript collections held in public and private depositories, prepared a bibliographic record of books published before the copyright law of 1876, surveyed federal records in state depositories, and undertook related historical projects designed to provide scholars with a more detailed account of public and private records throughout the country.

How and Where Do You Begin Your Record Search?

In 1980, Loretta L. Hefner, through the Society of American Archivists published The WPA Historical Records Survey: A Guide to the Unpublished Inventories, Indexes, and Transcripts.

This book is the absolute #1 starting point to learn about this collection. It has been digitized and is available both on FamilySearch (log in to your free account to view it) and HathiTrust.

This guide is very easy to use, as the information is organized by states plus the District of Columbia. Some states, like Georgia, have many cubic feet of records from the project that have been preserved.

Others have far fewer records preserved. Two states, Maine and Rhode Island, have no records. Maine, in particular, has the ignominious distinction of having apparently dumped its records off a dock into Casco Bay many years ago because no Maine library would accept the Historical Records Survey and Writers’ Project works.

However, Georgia is an excellent example of the types of records that are available and where they may be found.

The Georgia State Archives has 40 cubic feet of records with a guide to them available. One of its state projects was Life Histories and Reminiscences of World War I Era and the Great Depression.

The Georgia Historical Society has 35 cubic feet of materials in its collection, including indexes to county marriage records, family Bible records and Transcripts of Letters and Biographies of the Cherokee Indians, among many other items.

Lastly, the University of Georgia Libraries have 100 cubic feet of records, including Transcripts of County and Municipal Records.

Other types of records to be found among the 48 remaining states include a survey of church records, manuscripts surveys, lists of defunct towns, the Negro Historical Papers Survey, the Civilian Organizations Survey, a Photographs Survey and surveys of the state holdings of federal, state, county and municipal records.

New Jersey is a small state in terms of geography, but it is a giant in the WPA project. It took part in many national and state projects.

Hefner’s guide is invaluable to researchers, helping them locate unpublished records.

However, 1980 was long before the internet age and Hefner’s work was all about  UN-published records.

Now that you know a lot more about the Federal Art, Music, Theatre and Writers Projects and the Historical Records Survey, you are ready to search out these collections online.

Many repositories are beginning to realize what a unique collection the WPA created and are digitizing their holdings.

Throughout this series, I’ve mentioned specific repositories along with general categories of organizations that might house these records.

Now it is time to choose your first locality and get those terms in the search engine. You might be pleasantly surprised at what pops up.

Happy Hunting!




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