The Historical Records Survey of the Works Progress Administration

by | 12 May 2022

The Historical Records Survey was a nationwide series of projects conducted by the U.S. Works Progress Administration (WPA) from the winter of 1935 through 1942. The purpose of the Depression-era program was to provide useful employment to needy out-of-work historians, teachers, lawyers, and research and clerical workers by executing the largest survey of public records ever conducted in the United States. The mission was to organize and compile inventories of historical materials, particularly unpublished government records, and important privately owned historical materials, for use by government officials, historians, legal scholars, and other researchers. 

“American life will indeed achieve more dignity and richness as we study our past in the only way that it can be studied, that is, in the archives and other materials which the Historical Records Survey makes adequately accessible to us for the first time.”

                                              —Luther Evans, organizer of the Historical Records Survey

The boon for genealogists and other historians is that the surviving inventories and publications of the Historical Records Survey provide an invaluable roadmap to the availability and location of a wide number of historical records and manuscript materials in counties, churches, and archives across the United States. The inventories produced by Historical Records Survey projects generally go beyond just a list of records; they also include historical background material on the relevant county, church, etc.

One of the biggest projects of the Historical Records Survey was the Survey of County Records. Field workers inventoried the extant public (and some private) records of counties in states across the nation—locating, describing, and classifying government records, manuscripts, and church records—to make them more easily accessible to county officials, historians, and researchers. The WPA workers also compiled histories of each county and descriptions of the organization and function of each government unit. The completed inventory for each county, along with the historical background material, was to be published as a guide for each county.

The Historical Records Survey (part of Federal Project No. 1) lost its funding and became a unit of the Research and Records Program in 1939, and the survey work was continued from that point by state agencies until the federal program was officially discontinued in 1942.  

How to Find the WPA Historical Records Survey Inventories

There were a number of different projects undertaken as part of the Historical Records Survey, although not all projects were conducted in all locations. The largest, as mentioned previously, was the Survey of County Records which located, identified, arranged, and described public records found in county archives. This project resulted in the publication of over 600 volumes of inventories for counties across the country. Most were published as a series of volumes, one per county, under the title Inventory of the County Archives of… [State Name], followed by the county name or county number and name (e.g., Inventory of the County Archives of Indiana, No. 87 Warrick County  (Boonville) ). There are exceptions, however, so you may need to do some research or try a few different search terms to learn how they were titled and published for your state of interest. One such example is North Carolina, where the entire statewide survey of existing and extinct counties was published in 1939 as a three-volume set titled The Historical Records of North Carolina (Vol. 1: Alamance-ColumbusVol. 2: Craven-Moore, and Vol. 3: Nash-Yancey).

As you may have noticed if you followed any of the links in the previous paragraph, many of these Historical Records Survey publications have been digitized and made available online. Coverage and online availability vary by locality. Internet Archive has a large digitized collection with excellent coverage for Illinois and Indiana—search with terms such as “inventory of the county archives” or historical records [state name] or [state name] historical records survey (as publisher). If you can’t locate something you’re looking for through Internet Archive’s search box, try the Google trick that I discuss in the article Tips for Finding Content on Archive.org.

HathiTrust Digital Library may have the largest online collection of digitized publications from the historical records survey including some available for full view, and some only for “snippet” view (although you then have an exact title to use for searching elsewhere). Other resources include Google Books, the websites of state libraries and archives and, of course, a Google search.

If you’re unable to find the book online, then search WorldCat or Open Library (which will point you to online versions in Internet Archive as well as print editions cataloged in WorldCat) to learn what’s been published for your state and counties of interest, and where you can access a copy. WorldCat tells me, for example, that a copy of Inventory of the County Archives of West Virginia is available at my local library in Pennsylvania.

Not Everything was Published
Due to the premature end of the Historical Records Survey program in December 1942, a lot of the work was not published and remains unorganized in state and local record repositories. Most of these are described through finding aids or are at least included in the catalog of the repositories that hold them—primarily state archives or libraries, but sometimes local repositories, major research libraries, or historical societies. There are also counties that apparently were never inventoried at all, or for which the surveys have since been misplaced or lost. 

Using South Carolina as an example, the WPA apparently did not survey all SC counties, and some of the counties that were surveyed weren’t completed or published. The full collection of the published Inventory of the County Archives of South Carolina includes No. 1 Abbeville, No. 2 Aiken, No. 3 Allendale, No. 4 Anderson, No. 11 Cherokee, No. 12 Chester, No. 17 Dillon, No. 21 Florence, No. 24 Lee, No. 27 Jasper, No. 35 McCormick, No. 37 Oconee, No. 39 Pickens, No. 40 Richland and No. 41 Saluda. Others were either never published or ever surveyed at all. The South Carolina Department of Archives & History (SCDAH) has several collections of original notes from this format inventoried in their online catalog, including notes from a few counties such as Charleston and Barnwell which were never published. As a point of note, the cartons do include a few bundles of notes for counties that are not identified on the label for the carton, although not a large quantity. It is also important to understand that although in the hands of the states, these are federal records and you may find them cataloged as such.

Further Resources:

Loretta Hefner, The WPA Historical Records Survey: a guide to the unpublished inventories, indexes, and transcriptions. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1980.

Sargent B. Child and Dorothy P. Holmes, Bibliography of Research Projects Reports: Check List of Historical Records Survey Publications, originally published as W.P.A. Technical Series Research and Records Bibliography No. 7. Washington, D.C.: Federal Works Agency, Work Projects Administration, Division of Service Projects, 1943. 

©2022 Kimberly Powell. Use of this article elsewhere without permission violates copyright. Short excerpts and links are welcome, with credit and a link back to Learn Genealogy.

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