Catalogue Raisonné/ Provenance Researcher
Roy Lichtenstein Foundation
By initiating “a national database of information, documents, photographs, and personal stories about the public works made possible by the New Deal,” The Living New Deal is building a comprehensive registry of projects completed between 1933 and 1942. Currently, over 17,000 entries represent “hundreds of thousands” of public works, from heroic murals to humble sewers, making it the only reference source of its kind.
Researching New Deal projects can be a challenge. Multiple agencies were involved, and the records are spread among federal repositories (National Park Service, National Archives, Library of Congress, and National Gallery of Art) as well as state and local agencies. Navigating these primary sources can be daunting, while secondary works tend to be either very broad or highly specific. Living New Deal edits this material into concise narratives organized geographically—much like the WPA American Guides series published under the Federal Writers’ Project.
For an average researcher, the Living New Deal website is a good place to get oriented to the era, with a companion iPhone app handy for searching on the move. Users will need to download the app directly from the Apple App Store, since no link is available on the website. Donation-driven, there is no paywall or account to create. The About section outlines the organizational structure and includes contributor biographies as well as annual reports.
The interface is basic: a simple header with seven categories and drop-down subsections supplemented by a keyword site search. For reference purposes –the focus here – the meatiest sections are Map & Sites and the confusingly titled The New Deal, which features substantive entries on programs as well as a timeline, glossary, and footnoted interpretive essays. The index of agencies is especially useful, as is another grouping projects into categories such as Historic Preservation and Labor Law. A timeline and list of landmark acts situate the programs in world events and domestic legislation. The biographies section features concise and sourced entries, with helpful cross-referencing to particular projects. Wikipedia and other sources (National Archives, DPLA, for example) cover many if not all of these topics, but Living New Deal provides welcome focus on material culture.
Interactive mapping standards are getting higher by the day, but here the Mapbox and OpenStreetMap platforms work well enough, with standard click and zoom features, as well as searching by location (city, state, zipcode). Unfortunately, the standard search box includes unrelated locations and no artist index, making map searches indirect. This means that locating works such as the South Side Community Arts Center involves clicking through a state and city index, then manually paging through alphabetical listings.
Another workaround: exit the map, do an advanced search, and click through the results to get back to the map. Moreover, the database structure includes categories for artist, contractor, and architect, but not engineer, photographer, or writer. Use of these fields appears to be up to the contributor, so that even if mentioned in the descriptive text, figures such as Hilyard Robinson or Louis Kahn are not indexed and therefore can only be found by keyword searching the whole site.For future iterations, the organizers might look to the integrated design of sites such as Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America, and consider releasing Living New Deal as an open-source dataset to make the material portable, interlinkable, and open to wider interpretation. In the meantime, Living New Deal’s 17,000 entries are a unique and valuable compilation.