Friday, October 9, 2009

Historians Must Organize to Take Advantage of a Second Stimulus

Calls Grow for More Relief: "WASHINGTON – Eight months after enacting a massive economic stimulus package, the Obama administration is facing rising pressure from some congressional Democrats to move more aggressively to jump-start the moribund job market and try to spur a housing recovery."

If there is another stimulus, will history miss the boat again?

The last stimulus was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity--and we blew it. Some of us on the fringes of the profession called for a new federal writers project. We noted that history was scanner ready. We envisioned hundreds of millions (of the hundreds of billions) of stimulus dollars flowing into oral history, digitization, historic preservation, and history education. Stimulus money spent on history would not need a year to eighteen months to hit the economy--we are ready to go. Give us a sack of dollars and a stack of unfunded NEH proposals from the past five years and we will get people to work by Christmas.

Why did we get nothing? Because our professional organizations failed us. So far as I know there was no effort by the OAH, the AHA, the NCPH, or any other history organization to rally its members for a major push for a share of the stimulus. They sat on their hands while lobbyists from the other sectors of the economy elbowed their way to the trough. (I apologize if I am mischaracterizing anyone here and welcome correction.)

It looks like we might be about to get a second chance. Will we sit on the sidelines again? I invite ideas on how to mobilize the historians, genealogists (who are legion after all), preservationists, and teachers to channel some stimulus money into history. How do we do this?

1 comment:

Jim Cassedy said...

An unsuccessful effort, not published by WP, NYT USA. Throwing an edited version into the "Commons."

The Obama Administration is seeking to implement a stimulus plan costing at least $800 billion. The Administration should consider directing relatively small portions of the stimulus package toward the "historical" infrastructure of the United States- the records of the United States documenting the American experience. The New Deal of the 1930's, to which many compare the Administration's proposed stimulus, provides ample precedent for such an initiative.

In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, Congress passed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act at the behest of President Franklin Roosevelt. The Act authorized the establishment of several agencies to move unemployed workers from relief programs to jobs. The largest of these agencies was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). By the end of 1935, the WPA employed 2.6 million workers, and during eight years of existence put 8.5 million people to work. 75 percent of the jobs were in construction and engineering. In addition, the WPA funded such well known projects as the Federal Arts Project and Federal Writers Project, as well as lesser known projects, including the Historical Records Survey.

Full implementation of the HRS began in November 1935 when President Roosevelt authorized the release of approximately 1,200,000.00 to the project. Under the leadership of Evans, a structure was set up in each state of the Union under the leadership of a state supervisor. Under the supervisors, teams of clerks- many of whom were unemployed librarians, historians, archivists, as well as a miscellany of unemployed white collar workers, were sent into most of the 3,006 counties of the United States to inventory public records such as wills, deeds, and other court records that were maintained in conditions that were often, at best, haphazard. These teams worked with local officials to improve the conditions in which the records were held, collecting valuable records and arranging them in an accessible order. The county inventories were then compiled, edited, and published as booklets.

Compared to the cost and size of the WPA, which at the end 1938 employed 3,250,000 individuals, the HRA, which employed 8000 persons at that time, was relatively small. However, it provided sorely needed employment for white collar workers, 42% of whom were women. And, in part through the work of the HRA- it produced well over 2000 inventories and other publications before its demise in 1943, there developed a post war interest in historical research, particularly on local communities.

In much the same manner as the HRA, H.R. 6056, "Preserving the American Historical Record (PAHR)," provides a mechanism to further strengthen the American historical record held at the state and local level. The bill proposes to protect and prolong the life of the record through the use of electronic records initiatives such as digitizing documents, and other preservation techniques; to use records to promote local history; to create a wide variety of access tools, including indexes and finding aids to collections of digitized records; and to provide education and training to those who care for historical records.

The proposed authorization for PAHR is $50 million per year over a five year period, altogether approximately $250 million, a pittance for such important work. Important, for as President Roosevelt noted, "To bring together the records of the past and...preserve them for the use of men and women living in the future, a nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment for the creation of the future."