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WPA Historical Records Surveys

[]Many of our church record collections at the Congregational Library originated in New England, because that's where we are. Other collections both here and in other regions often end up closer to home, in state libraries and archives, historical societies, or even local public libraries. Because so few religious denominations have the mandate for congregations to send their records to a specific place, it can occasionally be difficult to track them down.

This isn't a new conundrum for researchers, of course, which is why the Works Progress Administration (one of FDR's New Deal programs) spent the better part of a decade creating its Historical Records Survey.

The HRC, headquartered in Washington, D.C., was organized into subdivisions (regional, state, district) and much of the work was done at the behest of the National Archives and Records Administration or state archive agencies. The HRS sometimes cooperated with the Daughters of the American Revolution and other volunteer groups with an interest in local history and genealogy.

Among their accomplishments were the soundex indexes for the several of the states for several of the late 19th-century U.S. Censuses (1880, 1900, 1910, 1920), indexes of vital statistics, book indexes, bibliographies, cemetery indexes and newspaper indexes, the American Imprints Inventory, the Atlas of Congressional Roll Calls Project, a historical index of American musicians, surveys of portraits in public buildings, maritime records, a history of grazing, a food history project called America Eats, and a necessary survey of the federal Archives — NARA itself had been established only in 1934.

The HRS was generally considered the most efficient and inexpensive of the Federal One projects.

The National Archive has an excellent collection of the surveys that were published. To find published surveys for a state, e.g. Michigan, in their holdings go to the NARA Library catalog (ALIC) and search for key words "Historical Records Survey Michigan" (substituting the name of the state that you are researching, of course). You may need to change the display to see the full record.

To find unpublished surveys, check WorldCat to find the closest copy of Loretta Hefner's book, The WPA Historical Records Survey: a guide to the unpublished inventories, indexes, and transcripts. (And if there isn't a copy nearby, ask your local public librarian about getting one through interlibrary loan.)

Now that historical institutions are digitizing more of their resources, it's much easier to access some of these surveys online, or at least see what's in them through finding guides. The collection that brought these resources to our attention was a group of church records from Florida Memory, a project of the Florida State Library. A quick web search yielded results in at the State Historical Society of Missouri, the Oklahoma Historical Society, the Northwest Digital Archive, and the University of New Hampshire.

It may take a bit of legwork to find these records in your area, but they just might contain the information you're looking for, or even answer a question you hadn't thought to ask.



image of the Building Survey Form for the Town Hall, So. Hampton courtesy of the University of New Hampshire Library