Soul of a People: Voices from the Writers’ Project

lizzie hill The American Library Association, in association with Spark Media, an award-winning, Washington, D.C.–based production and outreach company specializing in issues of social change, received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to develop an innovative library outreach program to enhance and increase the nationwide impact of Spark Media’s documentary film, Soul of a People: Voices from the Writers’ Project. The film and library outreach programs acquainted audiences with the now virtually forgotten story of the largest cultural experiment in U.S. history—the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration—told against the backdrop of the Depression and 1930s America. The ALA project was titled “Soul of a People: Voices from the Writers’ Project—Library Outreach Programs.”

The ALA library outreach project offered libraries opportunities to present public humanities programs that explored the works of the Writers’ Project—such as the American Guide series of state and regional travel guides, regional cultural studies, oral history interviews, films and photographs—and showcased works of important authors of the twentieth century who got their start in the Writers’ Project.

The 29 libraries selected to participate received grants of $2,500 to present five different public outreach programs during the national broadcast period of Soul of People in 2009. The purpose of the library outreach programs was to expand the audience for Soul of a People, to educate the public about the Federal Writers’ Project, and to encourage public dialogue on issues closely related to the project, including national and regional identity, national and regional cultures, and how they have changed since the 1930s as well as the interplay between history, literature and culture. The ALA Public Programs Office  also sponsored a program on “Soul of a People” at the 2008 ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, California.

The grants of $2,500 were used for scholar honoraria, book purchases, publicity, and other program-associated costs approved by the NEH. Application were open to public, academic, and special libraries across the United States. Libraries were asked to enlist from a local college or university a lead project scholar with expertise in American history, the WPA, and/or the WPA era to help present and plan programs, ensure that program content conveys intended humanities themes, and work with local media and other partners in planning. A planning workshop was held in Washington, D.C. in February 2009, for the library project coordinator and scholar from each selected library to plan programs and discuss humanities themes and resources. The project advisory committee scholars—all of them historians with expertise about the Writers’ Project— made presentations to the group.

Libraries and their local project scholars were also required to collaborate with at least one of the following in planning their programs: a local public television station, a state humanities council, a college or university, a museum, a state library with FWP archives, or a state or regional folklife center (there are 45 state folklife centers). Collaborating with more than one partner was encouraged in the application guidelines.

Additionally, libraries received a list of FWP works about their state from The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers’ Project 1935–1943 by Jerre Mangione, and were asked to locate these publications in state or regional archives to inform local programming. Many state libraries, Centers for the Book, and university libraries have archived Writers’ Project materials; some have digitized these resources and made them available online. Selected libraries were also encouraged to identify WPA art, music, photography, and theatre projects in their area, and draw the public’s attention to them as well.

Programs in Libraries

Libraries presented the following programs, which were developed to: 1) represent the broad scope of Federal Writers’ Project works; 2) encourage scholar-led discussion about the project’s major humanities themes; 3) acquaint a new audience with the remarkable output of the Writers’ Project and with online and print resources that provide access to the project’s primary resources; and 4) complement the broadcast of the documentary, Soul of a People.

  1. A community-wide Soul of a People celebration featuring informal taping of local people’s memories and accounts of present-day lives (in the style of the Writers’ Project and using interview guidelines used by the FWP); viewing of excerpts from the documentary, distribution of guides to other Writers’ Project resources in various media, and readings from Writers’ Project works, and/or state guides by local community leaders. Libraries were encouraged to create a 1930s atmosphere with music, displays of books and photographs, food, antiques, and related programs for children. The America in the 30s external link web site helped with 1930s details. It features 1930s dress, radio programs, comic strips, films, books, articles from many magazines, including Survey Graphic, and other items related to 1930s culture.

  2. A program focusing on a Federal Writers’ Project work about the library’s region. This could be a state, city or county guide, a highway guide, or another Writers’ Project guide about an area, e. g, Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales by the Louisiana Writers’ Project; An Ornery Bunch: Tales and Anecdotes Collected by the WPA Montana Writers Project; Women’s Tales from the New Mexico WPA: La Diabla a Pie; Oneida Lives: Long Lost Voices of the Wisconsin Oneidas; or Mister, You’ve Got Yourself a Horse by the Nebraska Writers’ Project (all in print). Many details about everyday life in a particular region, state or city— in the 1930s and before—and countless beloved folktales and local stories would have faded into obscurity were it not for the FWP. This program was intended to connect the library’s community with its past, offer an opportunity to compare past and present culture and values, help people to learn more about local and regional stories, and, perhaps, contribute contemporary tales and “urban legends” to a new collection. If feasible, libraries were encouraged to arrange for an excerpt from a state guide or a regional tale to be published in the local newspaper to encourage attendance at the community discussion.

  3. A program in which attendees examined at least four oral histories from the Writers’ Project “Slave Narratives” and “American Life Histories” and learned about sources where they could locate other similar documentation. The project scholar chose appropriate histories at the Library of Congress American Memory’s American Life Histories external link site or Born in Slavery external link site, which features recordings and notes that can be printed out as well. The scholar  lead discussion of the life histories or slave narratives selected, putting them in the context of the Federal Writers’ Project and their value to American history. A book that collects selected slave narratives, When I Was a Slave, edited by Norman R. Yetman (Dover, 2002), could also be used along with materials from the web site for this program.

  4. A program about the prominent authors who contributed to the Writers’ Project and later became important figures in American literary history. Libraries sponsored at least one book discussion session using discussion guides produced by ALA that focus on the later works of Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, D’Arcy McNickle, and Dorothy West. Libraries were encouraged to present more than one book discussion if feasible.

  5. A screening of excerpts from the documentary Soul of a People, followed by discussion led by the project scholar about the Writers’ Project, its impact and legacy, and how the project’s picture of America in the late 1930s can inform our understanding of America today—including competing interpretations of American values and identity, and what is understood to be American and un-American.

This page brought to you by the American Library Association’s Public Programs Office.

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