Using archival data to explore methodological issues

Qualitative researchers typically generate and collect new data sets to explore their research questions. Methodologists, in contrast, quite often conduct a secondary analysis of their own data sets to examine methodological issues that have emerged during their research studies. As well as using their own data sets to examine research methods, qualitative researchers can also make use of archived data sets. In this blog post, I explore an example of what might be learned from archived data about methodological issues to do with interviewing. Over the last two years, I’ve examined data sets archived from the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) conducted in the 1930s in the US. The FWP entailed several projects, including the American Guide series, the Folklore project, and the Former Slave Narrative Project. First, some background to these projects…

The American Guide

The central project of the FWP was to produce the American Guide, which was originally planned as a five-volume guide for different regions in the U.S. that would provide detailed scenic information for travelers in the style of a Baedeker guidebook and stimulate travel and tourism across the country. The initial goal of producing regional guidebooks was abandoned in favor of the development of state and local guides (McDonald, 1969), each of which included information on culture, history, industry, commerce, labor, education and the arts (Mangione, 1969, 1972; Stewart, 2016). The FWP eventually produced 51 state and territorial guides, approximately 30 city guides, and 20 regional guides (Stewart, 2016, p. 36). For an overview of the development of the American Guide Series, see David Taylor’s (2009) book, Soul of a people.

The Folklore Project

The Folklore Project includes a compilation of life histories compiled from 1936-1940 which is cataloged at the Library of Congress as the American Life Histories collection. Three hundred writers from 24 states were involved, recording the life stories from people in all walks of life and ethnic groups across the country. Folklorist Benjamin Botkin, who was involved in the federal administration of the FWP, believed in the importance of collecting life stories from ethnically diverse people and wanted to compile portraits documenting various groups within the US. Writing in the introduction to an edited collection of these life stories, entitled These are our lives, Couch (1939, p. x) writes: “In writing the life histories the first principle has been to let the people tell their own stories.” According to Couch, the stories, when revised and edited, were “approved in the final form by the author and, in some instances, by the subject of the story” (p. xiii). Names were changed throughout, along with places where appropriate. Writers were advised to collect life stories from working-class people from a variety of occupations to generate stories from 2,000 to 15,000 words. Although writers were not expected to adhere to a rigid format in their stories, they were provided with an outline of topics for interviews, and there was a preference from project administrators that the stories be represented in the words of the person interviewed. Writers were advised to be neutral and to refrain from expressing their opinions since the purpose was to gain a sense of the “real feeling of the person consulted” (Couch, 1939, p. 418). The judgment of the quality of the life stories submitted by writers was based on the four criteria of “accuracy, human interest, social importance, [and] literary excellence” (Couch, 1939, p. 418).  Although a story might not exhibit all four criteria, writers were advised to demonstrate accuracy and literacy excellence.

Although FWP administrators intended to publish the life stories in a series of anthologies, this did not eventuate since the US Congress shut down the FWP. With the advent of World War II, the material was transferred to the Library of Congress. Yet some of the writers who worked on the FWP used materials from these interviews to inform their writing. These included Stetson Kennedy (1916-2011), Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), Saul Bellow (1915-2005), Ralph Ellison (1913-1994), Studs Terkel (1912-2008), and Frank Yerby (1916-1991), among others. Most recently, Colson Whitehead (2016) has used materials from the Former Slave Project to inform his award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad.

The Former Slave Project

This project began when federal administrators became interested in the life stories of Former Slaves that had been submitted and requested that fieldworkers collect more of these types of narratives. Beginning in 1936, the second year of the FWP, fieldworkers were provided with interview guides to collect oral histories from Former Slaves about life during the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, as well as folklore. Musher (2014, pp. 101-102) reports that approximately 4,000 narratives have been documented. Over 2,300 of these have been digitized and made available by the Library of Congress. Narratives and photographs were collected in 17 states, and have been published in multiple collections (Botkin, 1945; Rawick, 1972, 1941a, 1941b; Yetman, 2000 [1972])).

Narratives from the Former Slave Project present specific problems for analysts, and these have been critiqued on multiple grounds by numerous historians. Firstly, two-thirds of the interviewees were over 80 years of age when interviewed (Yetman, 2000, p. 2). Critics have questioned the ability of interviewees to provide accurate recollections. Coupled with this, historians have written much about the context in which the narratives were collected. Most of the interviewers who elicited narratives were white, and Stewart (2016) has identified some as children of plantation owners and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Would those interviewed be willing to speak frankly about their experiences to white interviewers in the 1930s when racist practices were enforced via Jim Crow laws? Second, because of the ways in which the narratives were collected – fieldworkers took notes without the benefit of audio-recording that were subject to multiple rounds of editing at the state and federal level –questions have been raised about both the accuracy of the narratives and how the Former Slaves were represented. Federal administrators worked to systematize the ways in which narratives were represented (e.g., Brown, 1985) but were frequently thwarted by state editors and fieldworkers who perpetuated racist stereotypes in the narratives submitted. Archival records show that administrators of the project during the 1930s recognized the problems related to the epistemological status of the interview materials (Roulston, 2019a).

To read more about what qualitative researchers might learn about interview methods from this archived project, see Roulston (2019b). You can read a copy of the full article here:

For more information on using archival data in qualitative research, see:

Archiving qualitative data

Exploring archival collections: The American Folklife Center

Visiting the archives

Kathy Roulston


Botkin, B. A. (1945). Lay my burden down: A folk history of slavery. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Brown, S. A. (1985). On dialect usage. In C. T. Davis & H. L. Gates, Jr. (Eds.), The slave’s narrative (pp. 37-39). Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Couch, W. T. (1939). These are our lives. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Mangione, J. (1969). Federal Writers’ Project. The New York Times. May 18.

Mangione, J. (1972) The dream and the deal. Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown and Company.

McDonald, W. F. (1969). Federal relief administration and the arts. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press.

Musher, S. A. (2014). The other slave narratives: The Works Progress Administration interviews. In: Ernest J (ed) The Oxford handbook of the African American Slave narrative (pp. 101-118). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rawick, G. P. (1972 [1941]-a) The American Slave: A composite autobiography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Company. (Vol. 13 Georgia Narratives, Parts 3 & 4).

Rawick, G. P. (1972 [1941]-b) The American Slave: A composite autobiography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Company. (Vol. 12 Georgia Narratives, Parts 1 & 2).

Roulston, K. (2019a). Epistemology and interviews. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Oxford University Press. doi:

Roulston, K. (2019b). Using archival data to examine interview methods: The case of the Former Slave Project. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18.

Stewart, C. A. (2016). Long past slavery: Representing race in the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Taylor, D. A. (2009). Soul of a people: The WPA writers’ project uncovers depression America. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Whitehead, C. (2016). The underground railroad. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney & Auckland: Doubleday.

Yetman, N. R. (Ed.) (2000 [1972]). Voices from slavery: 100 Authentic slave narratives. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.


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