The Washington State University “Clipped History” exhibit highlights one of the more original forms of historical documentation.
In the 1930s in Spokane, more than 80 Works Progress Administration employees clipped and categorized over 400,000 newspaper articles across the nation. The exhibit in the main lobby of the Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections section in the Terrell Library, provides an in-depth look into the project and their lives. The four-month exhibit closes July 18.
Lipi Turner-Rahman, WSU Libraries Kimble database coordinator, spent months putting the exhibit together with DougLambeth, digital projects coordinator. They dug through all of the articles, photographs and letters that were previously stored in the Holland library basement.
“We want this exhibit to show three levels of storytelling,” Turner-Rahman said. “This (exhibit) helps the students connect with that.”
The first piece of the story is the development of the Index and Clipping Bureau as a jobs project of the WPA. The WPA is well known for large construction projects like the Grand Coulee Dam, but the Index and Clipping Bureau was another job creator.
Washington State College funded the Spokane-based project. President Ernest O. Holland and Professor Herman J. Deutsch hired the workers. The bureau provided steady work at time when jobs were scarce because of the Depression.
To illustrate the difficulties people were having, the exhibit contains an original letter that WSC graduate H. Arthur Pommer, one of the many college graduates desperate for work, sent to Holland when he struggled to find a job after earning his degree.
“It is quite disconcerting,” Pommer wrote in the letter, “to read of all the jobs opened up by the WPA, and not even get one of the lowest ones.”
Pommer was hired at the bureau shortly after Holland received the letter from Deutsch.
The next level of the story is the clipping project, which involved about 80 men and women sorting through tons of articles to preserve the ones with the most historical significance. The articles, dating as far back as 1910, included stories about major events such as World War I and the influenza outbreak. The workers separated articles by subject and filed them into 400 boxes, handmade from reused cardboard and fireworks boxes, some of which are featured in the exhibit.
WSU students are digitizing the articles and placing them in the Wallis and Marilyn Kimble Northwest History Database, named after the two WSU alumni who donated the money to essentially re-do the work of the 1930s project in online form. So far the students have digitized 100,000.
“They had a vision that these articles would be seen,” Turner-Rahman said.
The final level of the story creates the largest visual element in the exhibit. It’s a recreation of the work stations bureau employees used to preserve the articles. The desk, typewriter, old menus they used as dividers for the files, and loose, unclipped articles are all from the actual project.
“I really love the desk,” Turner-Rahman said. “It really helps me see what their day-to-day life was. It’s not that different from life now.”
After reading through the letters written by workers detailing life at the time of the project, which heavily discussed the plight of the African-American employees, Turner-Rahman and her colleagues recorded themselves reading the letters aloud and uploaded them to an iPad in the exhibit. There were five African-Americans working on the clipping project, three women and two men. They were unable to elude discrimination in the workplace, and often isolated because other employees refused to work alongside them.
“The exhibit is a microcosm of society,” Turner-Rahman said.
“It puts a message up,” Lambeth said of the exhibit. “It makes it real.”
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