Saturday, July 23, 2016

Southern History Book of the Month: Alabama Biography: An Index to Biographical Sketches of Individual Alabamians, a W.P.A. Project

Alabama Biography: An Index to Biographical Sketches of Individual Alabamians in State, Local, and to Some Extent National Collections, a W.P.A. Project
Sponsored by the Birmingham Public Library

On the Ready Reference shelf in the Southern History Department, there is a thick book bound in black, with a spine title reading W.P.A. Index to Alabama Biography—which is why most people wouldn’t recognize the long jawbreaker of a title listed above. Generally known in the department as simply “the W.P.A. Index,” this is one of our most frequently used sources for Alabama research:
This index to biographical material about Alabamians was begun as a library sponsored W.P.A. Project during the 1930’s. The W.P.A. folded up before the work was completed. The manuscript or typescript was turned over to Southern Collection in this state. Southern staff has found it useful and a great time saver in thumbing through many individual books—books often without indexes or poor ones. (From the preface)
Though a valuable source of information, the Index can still be a bit cumbersome to use. Suppose you wanted to know about William Wyatt Bibb, the first governor of Alabama. You could turn to his name in the Index and see an entry like this: "Bibb, William W, Beverly, I: 39; N.C.B. , X: 425; Riley, I: 1; . . ."

And the entry continues for several more lines. To decipher it, you would have to turn to the front list of sources, in which you discover that “Beverly” means History of Alabama: For Use in Schools and for General Reading by John William Beverly and that the entry for Bibb is on page 39. You would have to follow the same procedure for the rest of the titles in the list. It’s slow going at first, but easier once you’ve learned the drill.

The Index has gone through several evolutions in its history with BPL. When the original and very well-thumbed copy was showing signs of heavy use, a bound photocopy was placed on the shelf, but the photocopy also reflected the evidence of wear and tear as well as the extensive annotations, such as the change from Dewey call numbers to Library of Congress. However, this source became much easier to search when it was converted into one of the library’s databases. Using this format, all a researcher has to do is search a name to generate a list of sources, complete with catalog links to help locate items on the shelf.

Even though the W.P.A. Index was never completed according to the original vision of the Works Progress Administration, it remains one of the most informative guides to biographical material about Alabamians. Take a look at one of our bound copies in the collection or try out the database, which is accessible from your home or office. With the approach of our Bicentennial, it’s a good time to learn more about the people who shaped the history of our state.

Who are your famous Alabamians?

The WPA Index Database
Alabama Bicentennial
Birmingham Public Library Databases

Mary Anne Ellis
Southern History Department
Central Library

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