Summer Research Trip II: National Archives

Last week I discussed my most recent excursion to New York to wrap up Chapter 2 research. A few days after I returned, I headed out a second time to undertake a long-awaited research trip to the National Archives. Let’s take a look at what I’ve been doing.

The National Archives site at College Park, MD. Most WPA documents live here. Image: a contemporary class building surrounded by trees and benches.

Record Group 69 at the National Archives

To clarify, I did not go to Washington, DC for this trip. The National Archives has several repositories throughout the country. The branch I consulted is in College Park, Maryland and it’s where most of the collections pertaining to the WPA are kept. Known as Record Group 69, the documents concerning the WPA encompass everything from agricultural projects to the FAP itself.

I’ve been wanting to consult this group since 2018. I first learned about it through reading the citations in Victoria Grieve’s The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture. This book greatly influenced my early research into the Community Art Center Project. Subsequent references only furthered my conviction that I needed to consult this resource. One of the reasons why I picked William & Mary was its relative proximity to the National Archives.

Although I knew I wanted to visit this source early on, it would be several years before I’d finally visit it. The pandemic affected my research timeline, and between ongoing closures and my own life schedule, I wasn’t able to do a lot of my on-site work until 2022. I also prioritized repositories based on their placement within the dissertation chapters. As such, I visited places like New York first, saving CACP sites for later. Even then, I concentrated on more distant places like Minneapolis and Roswell, since the College Park branch was more accessible. All I needed to do was drive a few hours to get there. I’d get to it eventually.

Before I knew it though, five years had gone by and I still hadn’t looked at Record Group 69. With the Halleran Fellowship giving me a new sense of time limitations, I knew I’d have to go this summer.

The National Archives: A Repository All Its Own

Over the years, I’ve encountered a variety of archival repositories with differing approaches to access and supervision. The Roswell Museum granted me unlimited access because I used to work there. The Met is more stringent, with any potential photos or reproductions requiring permission from the archivist. In most places, I worked with minimal supervision. An archivist was present, but they trusted me not to steal or damage anything.

By far, the College Park branch is the most formal archive I’ve visited. Before I could make an appointment, I had a virtual conference with one of the archivists to review what I wanted to see and get some searching suggestions, which proved invaluable. To obtain a research card, I took an online workshop demonstrating that I knew the proper procedures for handling archival texts. For requesting documents, I filled out an Excel template noting the group number, location, and other details.

My on-site visit was no less involved. Upon entering, I walked through a metal detector and had my things scanned. I signed my name next to an appointment sheet to confirm my presence. To enter the textual research room, I scanned my researcher card. Researchers working at large marble-topped tables filled the massive, glass-paneled room. Throughout the day, archivists walking the floor would gently remind researchers of any rules they’d forgotten.

I’ve encountered similar practices at other repositories I’ve visited. Yet at the National Archives it’s compounded in a way I hadn’t seen at other places. It made me think of Archive Stories and its sundry tales of access and its impact on writing history.

The Challenges of Research

As a repository, Record Group 69 is no less complex than the procedures of the National Archives. Due to the way the WPA documents have been organized, there is no separate category for the Community Art Center Project. Instead, all those documents have been lumped under its supervisory organization, the Federal Art Project. Those documents, in turn, pop up under several different categories, including state projects and general correspondence, among others. All this is to say that there’s no magical box or folder labeled “CACP.” You access it sideways, through other categories.

For this trip, I looked at 23 different boxes. In addition to requesting general records, I requested the WPA documents for two states: New Mexico and Minnesota. My rationale was that I wanted to follow my two primary CACP case studies, the Roswell Museum and the Walker Art Center. Although 23 boxes is a lot, the amount of relevant documentation I found varied widely. Most of the boxes had little or nothing to say about the Federal Art Project, so I was able to go through them quickly. When I struck upon a folder or box that was relevant though, I’d hit the motherlode.

As always, I found the labor or archival work itself physically demanding. The need to be focused for hours at a time sinks into your body, and I left each day with aching shoulders and hips. But I also knew I was viewing good material.

Reflections on the National Archives

Unlike my trip to New York, this excursion was all about the documents. College Park doesn’t have any site-based connection to my work other than being a repository, so I spent no time looking for former exhibition sites. I could have been anywhere, really.

As often happens during my research trips, I went through several emotional stages. The initial elation of finally seeing my long-awaited documents quickly gave way to panic as I wondered how I’d get through them all within the time I’d allotted myself. From there, I devised a strategy and set to work.

Although the process remained essentially the same, in some ways it was more intense than previous trips. Since I had requested so many boxes and had only two days to get through them, I had to work more quickly than I usually do. I needed to determine within a few seconds whether a document, folder, or box was useful to me, then either photograph it or set it aside. And that’s only including what I looked at; there were numerous boxes I didn’t even request.

But there’s also the new urgency that’s come with my intention to graduate next year. There’s a recognition that I don’t have time to look at everything because I have more pressing tasks to complete. I had to ignore a lot of things that I found interesting, and I felt a little guilty about it. Yet it also meant giving myself permission to not get bogged down in all the details, which was liberating. And at the very least, I know where these documents live and how to search them, so I can always visit them in the future, say for a book project or related undertaking.

Next Steps

The next step research-wise is to read and process the photos I took on Tropy. Since I needed to work quickly, I only skimmed what I photographed, stopping as soon as I confirmed whether it concerned an art center or not. Over the rest of the summer, I’ll read through these documents and contextualize them within the other repositories I’ve visited.

It’ll make for a busy season, but with no other obligations in terms of museum work or assistantships at the moment, I’ve got the time to do it. And with temperatures being uncomfortably hot and humid for the foreseeable future, it’s not like I have a lot of places I want to go right now anyway.

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