American Document
The Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Archive

The Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information archive is a historic artifact of the New Deal era that offers critical information to the study of American history. The archive constitutes a monumental photographic survey of the United States, which broadly characterizes the years 1935 to 1944. The contents of the archive reveal an extraordinary documentary record of the livelihood of a nation caught in the midst of tumultuous upheaval, change, and uncertainty. Documentation of the Great Depression, Dust Bowl Migrations, plight of the Southern sharecroppers, and the domestic war effort are among the many critical episodes in American history contained within the archive. As an official document, the FSA-OWI archive is keeper and host to the complexities of its master story, and its contents subject to interpretation. As with all archives, the practice of identifying new meaning and new relationships contributes to broadening our understanding of the historical record.

Reference to what has come to be known as the FSA-OWI archive conflates the history of a number of photographic collections, New Deal agencies, and individuals. The provenance of the archive is traced to the Roosevelt administration's New Deal cultural production campaign, deployed to cultivate a new national consciousness, and authenticate a myriad of experimental economic policies and government agencies. The campaign materialized with a distinct New Deal cultural aesthetic, and was considerably influenced by the documentary tradition of representing others.

The story of how the archive was orchestrated begins in 1935 with Roy Emerson Stryker, who at the request of Rexford Tugwell (Undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture) was invited to initiate a photographic record unit to document the relief efforts of the Resettlement Administration (1935-1937). The RA had been created to consolidate a number of New Deal economic recovery programs formerly run by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and the Department of the Interior. Stryker was appointed director of the Historical Section of the RA's Division of Information from where he established the famed Historical Section Photographic Unit. Although Stryker was an ardent advocate of the New Deal cultural aesthetic, his nostalgia for agrarian America and admiration for the Turner Thesis (The Significance of the Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893) were to have a decisive influence on the editorial of the archive. In 1937, the RA was incorporated into the Department of Agriculture, and its responsibilities subsumed by a new agency, the Farm Security Administration. Stryker and the Historical Section Photographic Unit were effectively transferred to the FSA, from where the archive would acquire its reputation as a monumental photographic survey of America. The effects of World War II were also to have a critical influence on the editorial and security of the archive. In October of 1942, Stryker and the archive were transferred to the Office of War Information, which functioned as an agency within the Office for Emergency Management. Stryker was designated as chief of the OWI's News Bureau Division of Photography, and the Historical Section Photographic Unit was re-established as a division of photography within the Bureau of Publications and Graphics, Domestic Operations Branch (later transferred to the Washington Section, Overseas Picture Division). The structure of the Historical Section Photographic Unit which functioned under both the RA and FSA officially dissolved under the OWI. It was also during this time that Stryker appointed archivist, Paul Vanderbilt, to devise a formal system of classification for the archive. On September 14th, 1943, Stryker resigned from his position at the OWI, and on January 18th, 1944, Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, accepted legal transfer of the custody of the archive from Elmer Davis (Director of the OWI). The archive remained accessible to the OWI until the end of World War II and was physically transferred to the Library of Congress in 1946. Since then, the archive has been catalogued in the Prints and Photographs Division as the FSA/OWI Collection, and defined by Vanderbilt's classification system in the form of microfilmed lots and a working picture file.

The FSA-OWI archive, as it presently exists in the Library of Congress, comprises of some 110,000 black-and-white prints (of which 88,000 form a working picture file), 210,000 negatives (of which 180,000 are originals, and the remainder- a mixture of duplicate negatives, copy negatives, and transparencies), 1,610 color transparencies, 2,200 lots (groups of photographs on microfilm), and written records (caption sheets, caption notes, office files, scrapbooks, and supplementary reference files). The archive contains photographic materials from 6 specific collections, the majority of which were produced and gathered by the diverse group of photographers who worked for Stryker's Historical Section Photographic Unit as it existed in a succession of government agencies: the RA (1935-1937), the FSA (1937-1942), and the OWI (1942-1944). Materials from other governmental and non-governmental sources were also placed in the archive because they were deemed to be significantly connected to the RA, FSA, and OWI content. The 6 collections contained within the archive are defined as follows, and dates are noted where relevant: Resettlement Administration-Farm Security Administration Collection (1935-1942); Office of War Information Collection (1942-1943, Overseas Operations Branch, Washington Office photograph files); Office for Emergency Management-Office of War Information Collection (1940-1946, News Bureau photographs); America at War Collection; Portrait of America Collection; and Office of War Information Collection (Overseas Operations Branch, news photograph files).