9 Striking Library Posters from the Great Depression

Starting in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, the federal government did something that might seem odd: it paid artists to make art. Yes, while it’s difficult to imagine today, eighty years ago, the federal response to mass unemployment was a significant investment in public art. The Federal Art Project, part of the Works Progress Administration, employed artists—like pre-fame Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko—to paint murals, document traditional American crafts, and design posters to promote WPA programs. It’s that last function that interests us here, since the WPA also invested a great deal of money in public libraries. (Imagine that!)

Pulling from a fantastic database of WPA posters put together by the Library of Congress, I’ve gathered here 9 of my favorite WPA posters about books and libraries. Ranging from striking abstractions to adorable representations, they’re all reminders of how crucial both art and libraries can be to the civic and cultural health of a nation.

A poster from Iowa, produced in 1939.

A poster promoting library book clubs in Iowa.

A poster by Albert M. Bender, produced in Chicago in the late 1930s.

A poster by Albert M. Bender, produced in Chicago.

A poster advertising bookmobile service in Chicago, produced in 1941.

A poster advertising bookmobile service in Chicago.

Poster promoting Book Week in North Carolina. Documented by Marxchivist.

Poster promoting Book Week in North Carolina. Image by Marxchivist.

Poster by Sara Cleo, produced in Chicago in 1940.

Poster by Sara Cleo, produced in Chicago.

Poster produced in Chicago in 1940.

Poster produced in Chicago.

Poster promoting a statewide library project in Illinois, produced in the late 1930s.

Poster promoting a statewide library project in Illinois.

Poster promoting the NYPL Schomburg Collection as a source of information about African American life, produced in the early 1940s.

Poster promoting the NYPL Schomburg Collection as a source of information about African American life.

Poster created in Chicago to promote library use.

Poster created in Chicago to promote library use.

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