The Works Progress Administration (WPA), established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 as part of his New Deal reforms, was designed to put Americans back to work at a time when the country was suffering massive unemployment from the Great Depression. Now the results of one WPA program can be found on Washington State University’s Web site.
Historians working for the WPA in the 1930s and 1940s clipped and archived more than 300,000 newspaper articles dealing with issues and events in the Pacific Northwest from the 1890s to 1940. But it was the inspiration of Ingrid Mifflin, system librarian with the WSU Libraries, that led to the creation of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Clippings Collection, an electronic archival gem.
The digitized collection contains sources that describe a period of rapid growth and development in the Pacific Northwest. Clippings from newspapers such as the Spokesman Review, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, and the Oregonian, chronicle the struggle to organize labor unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World from around 1915 to the increased acceptance of organized labor and the use of strikes as a means to obtain better pay and working conditions in the 1930s.
Thanks to a generous financial contribution by Wallis and Marilyn Kimble in 2002, Mifflin’s project to digitize the massive collection began in earnest. The collection of newspaper clippings is housed in dozens of boxes at WSU’s Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collection offices.
So far Mifflin, along with WSU students working on the project, have digitized and made searchable in this online collection more than 15,000 articles, pictures, maps, and related items.
The Web site is organized by people and subjects, such as the Coeur d’Alene and Colville Indian tribes, land use issues, inventions, timber and mining industries, and prominent local politicians of the time. But most of the topics relate back to the impact the construction of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams had on state and federal politics, jobs, farming and irrigation, growth, and the Native American population.
At the time of their construction, the dams were heralded as a means of bringing the country out of its economic depression. They were also considered major feats of engineering that could harness the power of the Columbia River and produce an economical and abundant source of energy for the Pacific Northwest.
The dams, however, were not without their critics. They had a tremendous impact on the Native American populations, whose way of life and spiritual and economic ties to the salmon were forever changed by the dams. The site vividly documents the Native American perspective as well.
Mifflin says this one-of-a-kind site has drawn thousands of users since April 2002. Besides providing an accessible historical perspective on Pacific Northwest life in the early 1900s, the site is a source for genealogical research since names of prominent people are referenced and searchable.
“Students say it’s better than reading it in the history books,” Mifflin says. “They get a sense of what it was like to live at that time.”
The project has been such a success that Wallis and Marilyn Kimble have donated an additional $76,000 to expand the collection over the next three years.
Mifflin and her students will be busy at least for the next year. They have more than 5,000 articles related to the Grand Coulee Dam yet to scan.