Soul of a People: Voices from the Writers' Project
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, has 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 will acquaint 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 is titled “Soul of a People: Voices from the Writers’ Project—Library Outreach Programs.”
The ALA library outreach project will offer libraries opportunities to present public humanities programs that explore 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 showcase works of important authors of the twentieth century who got their start in the Writers’ Project.
Libraries selected to participate received grants of $2,500 to thirty libraries to present five different public outreach programs. The purpose of the library outreach programs is 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 grants can be used for scholar honoraria, book purchases, publicity, and other program-associated costs approved by NEH. 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 Chicago 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—will make presentations to the group.
Libraries and their local project scholars will be 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 forty-five state folklife centers). Collaborating with more than one partner was encouraged.
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 be encouraged to identify WPA art, music, photography, and theatre projects in their area, and draw the public’s attention to them as well.