Overview: In this activity, you will use the WPA Life Histories to examine and describe the difference between the 1930s and the 1990s. In the 1930s, as part of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) paid unemployed writers to compile “life histories” of ordinary Americans. The Library of Congress has put a portion of these interviews on-line in a searchable database, which you can connect to from the URL below. You will explore a specific subject as three people described it, and consider ways that their views and opinions differ from our own.
Objectives. In this activity you will:
*Identify a subject you are interested in
*Locate at least three life histories that make extensive mention of the subject
*Sketch the outline for a short paper describing the difference between the
way people in the 30s thought about your subject and the way we do today.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Folklore Project, WPA Federal Writers Project, 1936–1940
Step One Brainstorm a short list of subjects you are interested in. (5 min.)
Use your imagination. Picking a social or cultural topic you have personal interest in is a good idea. Think in terms of specifics, for example: jazz or movies instead of leisure; high school not education, etc.
Step Two Find three life histories that make extensive mention of your subject (30 min.)
a. Navigate to the "American Life Histories“ title page. Scroll down and click on ”Search by Keywords."
b. Enter any search term or terms you wish — again, try to use specifics.
c. Skim the life histories you find. Work judiciously, keeping the time in mind.
You may get many interviews (baseball, for example, turned up 88 different peoples life stories) so you will need to scroll through the documents quickly to determine which make extensive mention of the subject. Your search term or terms will appear in bold.
Search Tip: Once inside a document, click on “Best Match” at the top of the page to jump to the place in the document where your search terms appear most often.
d. Print out the three interviews you find most revealing on your subject.
Printing Tip: If the interview is too long to print in its entirety, copy and paste the key sections of the document into a Word Processing file or into “SimpleText” (usually found in the System or Applications folder on Macintosh), and print them out from there.
Step Three Sketch an outline for a 3 page paper, describing the ways people in the 1930s thought about your subject & comparing it to the ways we think about that subject today. (15 min.)
You might develop a list of similarities and differences based on the interviews; or you might briefly summarize the perspective in each interview, and contrast our own. Try to assemble your documents as evidence for the ways people in the 30s experienced, understood, or thought about the subject.
Step Four Meet with others who did this activity. Small group sharing and discussion. (40 min.)
a.Take turns sharing the life histories you found and the ideas you sketched for your papers.
b.Ask someone in the group to keep track of the distinctive features of life in the 1930s that each person cites. Consider these questions:
Are there patterns that emerge across the different papers? Can the group’s observations be connected with larger historical issues, themes or events?
What does the activity reveal about the value and limitations of oral histories as historical evidence? What other kinds of resources would you need to do this assignment well?
Source: Bill Tally, Center for Children and Technology