See this post for background on the NCPH Working Group.
As other members of the working group have noted, academic historians and popular audiences alike tend to recognize the importance of the New Deal and much of its legacy.1 In the course of my research, however, I have come to believe that both scholars and the public underestimate the extent and scope of the New Deal’s work relief and public works projects. The PWA, for example, provided grants and loans to public institutions of higher education for housing, administrative, instructional and maintenance facilities. In total, the PWA enabled the creation of 1286 college buildings worth $747 million2 through $83 million in grants and $29 million in loans.3 At my institution, Virginia Tech (then Virginia Polytechnic Institute), the PWA helped fund the construction or expansion of 14 buildings, including what is now the administration building, the student center, and several dormitories — Virginia Tech, in terms of its physical plant, is a New Deal institution.
Owing to this underestimation, I am interested in building out such a national inventory to help reinvigorate popular appreciation of the New Deal, making it publicly accessible through the web, and enriching it with historical data and media including photographs, oral histories, film, and audio, where possible. While a number of recent controversies and the broader conservative effort to roll back the New Deal have rallied defenders to the Roosevelt administration’s relief and infrastructure efforts, my experience indicates that a broader-based effort to reconnect the public with New Deal public and art works would be more effective in building public support than targeted defense of particular projects or the Roosevelt administration.
In pursuit of this project, I would like to suggest a mixed strategy of centralized and decentralized efforts including building a central inventory through National Archives research, but enriching it through state-level efforts or crowdsourced contributions led by working group participants. I could contribute my PWA higher ed database, for example, and lead groups in photographing or researching the history of individual VA sites. While such a strategy would lead to uneven enrichment, it would provide a central spine of information to build from, and would allow for school groups, college courses, or communities of interest at the public history grassroots to make a meaningful contribution to a national effort that also expressed local or regional pride.