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Featured Collection

D-Lib Magazine
December 2004

Volume 10 Number 12

ISSN 1082-9873

By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943

WPA poster created for a photography exhibition

Poster for the Sioux City Camera Club's second annual exhibition of photographs at the Community Federal Art Center, Sioux City, Iowa. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, WPA Poster Collection. [Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-1134.]

By Bonita Wilson
Corporation for National Research Initiatives

Many years ago, I had the chance to conduct research with archived materials from the Works Project Administration (WPA) Federal Theater Project. It was thrilling to be able to handle the primary documents in that particular Library of Congress WPA collection, which at the time was housed at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The materials included, among other materials, playbills, scripts, stage designs, lists of cast members, photographs and posters. More recently, when I first saw the Library of Congress web site for the collection being featured in D-Lib Magazine this month—By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943—I couldn't help remembering my experience with the Federal Theater Project archives and what it meant to be exposed to those historical documents. Nothing can replicate interacting with physical archives, but just the same, having access to digital archives such as those provided by the Library of Congress American Memory collections is truly enriching.

The WPA was established in 1935 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal." The program's primary purpose was to put back to work millions of American citizens who found themselves unemployed as a result of the Great Depression.

WPA poster about the dangers of mixing alcohol and driving.

Don't mix 'em. Lachenmann, Robert, artist. Pennsylvania: WPA Federal Art Project, [1936 or 1937]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, WPA Poster Collection. [Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-1106 DLC.]

As described at the web site for the By the People, For the People poster collection, "Federal Project Number One (Federal One) was established within the WPA as the central administration for the arts-related projects. Federal One provided funds specifically for artists, musicians, actors, and writers through the Federal Art Project (FAP), the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, and the Federal Writer's Project. FAP employed more than five thousand artists in various art projects including the many poster divisions that were created throughout the United States."

More than 35,000 posters were created as part of the WPA project, but today only approximately 2,000 of that number still exist. The Library of Congress has the largest collection of existing WPA posters, and the By the People, For the People collection consists of 908 of them. The posters in the collection were created for various government programs, including those related to health and safety, culture, art, theater, music, travel, education, and community activities.

WPA poster encouraging parents to get eye exams for their children

Poster recommending eye examinations for children having difficulty learning. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, WPA Poster Collection. [Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-5332.]

The Library of Congress By the People, For the People web site provides much more than a collection of poster images, however. It sets the collection within a historical context, describing the purposes, processes, outcomes and legacy of the Federal Arts Project. A Learning Page provides resources for teachers including information about US history, questions to encourage students' critical thinking, and guidance on how to search for specific things within the collection. In addition, several pages are provided that might be of interest to others who are engaged in creating digital archives, such as Building the Digital Collection, Cataloging the Collection, and Copyright and Other Restrictions.

A videotaped 1994 interview with Anthony Velonis, who was a notable figure within the Federal Art Project, is also available at the By the People, For the People web site. To watch this video you need appropriate software, which can be downloaded free of charge from the web site (see

Other resources at the site include: Working with the Collection, How to View Audio and Photos, How to Order Photographic Reproductions, Bibliographies, and more.

The Library of Congress collection By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943 is located at <>.

Copyright© 2004 Corporation for National Research Initiatives

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DOI: 10.1045/december2004-featured.collection