Ohio History Journal

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The Cleveland Public Library

and the WPA: A Study in

Creative Partnership





The dole is a "narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit .... I am not will-

ing that the vitality of our people be . . .sapped by the giving of cash."1 In a large

way, this statement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt summarizes the philoso-

phy and emphasis of the New Deal, which was a desire to "substitute work for

relief."2 Expressions of this philosophy were the proliferation of federal agencies

and the unprecedented intervention of the federal government into almost all

aspects of American life. Some people would contend that these New Deal agen-

cies resulted in waste and misuse of funds. One cannot deny these assertions,

but to adopt such a narrow view would ignore the solid contributions that these

bureaucracies made in the areas of employment, social rehabilitation, and work

projects of lasting value. Many of these projects were physical in nature: dams,

roads, harbors, and the like; yet some were truly creative in the intellectual and

aesthetic sense: art, music, theatre, and numerous bibliographic tools which pro-

vide services to this day. In any case, the inception and planning of these pro-

grams fostered the growth of a creative partnership between government and

local institutions. This article will discuss the origins, nature, and results of this

creative partnership as it affected the Cleveland Public Library by focusing on

the activities of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).


Initial attempts at work-relief began with the Public Works Administration

(PWA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Federal Emergency

Relief Act (FERA). All three of these agencies affected the Cleveland Public Li-

brary, although in a minor way compared with the Works Progress Administra-

tion. CWA workers, for example, painted the walls and ceilings of ten branch

libraries3 and also helped to update library routines which had been sorely ne-

glected as a result of the financial crunch.4 Similarly, nineteen painters from the





1. Frank Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (New York, 1963), 124.

2. Ibid.

3. "Building and Equipment Report," January 17, 1934, Cleveland Public Library Board of Trus-

tees, Cleveland Public Library. Hereafter cited as CPL Board of Trustees.

4. Cleveland Public Library, Board of Trustees, Annual Report, 1933, I, 77. Hereafter cited as

Annual Report.



Mr. Ring is a humanities reference librarian at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan; he has

an M.S. in history from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and an M.S. in library science from

the University of Wisconsin, Madison.