By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library System will receive a two-year National Leadership Grant amounting to $319,809 to advance the library’s work on the first-ever documentation of depression-era historical materials from Western New York.
The materials include artifacts, documents, photographs, information on buildings, artwork, oral histories and music — all from the depression era.
“We surprised ourselves once we found out how much around us that came about during that period,” Anne Conable, the project’s director said. “No one has ever done an inventory of these things.”
“The Public Library as Digitized Commons – A Demonstration Project” was started in 2009, and those on the job have begun collecting depression-era materials and information from both inside and outside of the library.
“We have a totally unique set of 400 scrapbooks which are available to the public,” Conable said. “They include all of the newspaper accounts of Buffalo buildings, Buffalo parks, Buffalo famous people ... and first-hand accounts about the depression.”
Much of the historical information at the library’s disposal includes documentation of projects started by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency that sought to put jobless people to work providing them with public work endeavors.
Conable said WPA projects are visible in many of the most popular places in Western New York.
“The Buffalo Philharmonic began as a WPA project,” she said. “And Kleinhans Music Hall, and those stone structures all over the Buffalo Zoo.”
A $1.2 million grant from the WPA was also responsible for the building of the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, and artists and writers were also asked to do murals in public buildings, like post offices.
Locally, WPA crews built the majority of the structures in Ellicott Creek Park, including the casino, the boathouse and concession stand, shelters, recreation facilities and the boat dock.
“There are things all around us that we take for granted that came from that time and were products of that era,” Conable said.
The most recent grant, provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, will allow the library to press on with the second part of the project by digitizing the items in a searchable inventory.
“We will do some various testing as to how the public could access our resources,” Conable said. “We are thinking about creating an app ... when you see a building, perhaps, your smartphone would pick up your location that will give you the historical information we have on the structure ... historical photographs, who built it, when it was built, what used to be there.”
Civic engagement programs will also be held thanks to the grant money.
“The depression is just far enough away, that if people are still alive, they were just little children,” Conable said. “They don’t have a lot of knowledge about it. We hope to bring it back to the forefront. How many of the issues we are struggling with today are similar? Let’s see if we can find new solutions.”
Conable said she is hoping the project will set the library system up for the digitized future, and keep the system relevant in today’s ever-changing world.
“We hope to bring people together to expose them to resources for lifelong learning,” she said. “This is a huge opportunity for the library, we are very excited about it.”Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150