A postcard from a series published by The Cargill Company that was "Endorsed and Approved by the National American Woman Suffrage Association.” Source: Adèle Goodman Clark papers, 1849-1978, James Branch Cabell Library, VCU Libraries.

Project shares ephemera from women’s suffrage, temperance, civil rights and other social movements

The Social Welfare History Image Portal is a collaborative project that features items from the collections of VCU Libraries and seven other institutions across the country.

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Sheet music for the suffragists’ rallying song “Votes for Women.” A Superboy comic PSA from the 1950s extolling the virtues of public education. A Victrola ad from 1920 suggesting that community singing would bring immigrants “into the fold of American citizenry.” A temperance movement handbill warning that alcohol is the “Fluid Extract of Hell” and “GUARANTEED TO KILL BOYS.”

These are just a few of the intriguing items to be found in a new project by VCU Libraries and seven partner institutions that showcases photographs, pamphlets, placards, advertisements, buttons and other ephemera from the history of social reform movements and social services.

“We’re making a door for researchers and others who are interested in the history of the social movements and our nation’s response to human need,” said project manager Alice Campbell, digital outreach and special projects librarian with VCU Libraries. “It’s difficult to know where to go and how to search across multiple institutions, so we’ve created a portal that lets you see choice materials from each of the institutions’ collections, and then travel through to their websites.”

The Social Welfare History Image Portal features images of primary source items drawn from the collections of VCU Libraries, Union Presbyterian Seminary Library, Beth Ahabah Museum & Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Simmons College Library, University of Mary Washington Libraries, Baylor University Libraries, and The Valentine.

The image portal can be freely accessed and is a discovery tool for researchers with various levels of experience. Students and professors alike can find a wide range of archival materials related to women’s right to vote, child-labor reform, charity organizations, desegregation, rights for people with disabilities, and the “Americanization” of immigrants.

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Each item in the portal is accompanied by a brief description that links to the holding institution.

Researchers can peruse the items individually, click on various tags, or explore curated “discovery sets” of materials related to special topics, such as women’s suffrage, temperance and prohibition, Americanization and the National Social Welfare Assembly Comics Project.

Jason Wood, college archivist and associate director for discovery services at Simmons College Library in Boston, said the image portal begins as a great opportunity to increase exposure of some of the unique items in Simmons College’s social work collection.

“The opportunities it presents are much greater than simply visibility of collections though,” he said. “For a researcher or student, whether experienced or novice, the portal also allows for ease of discovery of the connections between the many threads of social work and social welfare and the impact the field’s growth has had on all of our collective lives.”  

The project’s materials help tell the stories of the development of social work and social services; of campaigns for labor laws, public health and public education; and how the nation extended civil rights to greater numbers of the population. It also provides historical context amid continuing debates over immigration, civil rights, public education and the social safety net.  

“Social welfare history is profoundly interdisciplinary, looking at many, often conflicting, ideas of community and community responsibility, as well as ongoing discussions of our national identity,” Campbell said.

Carolyn S. Parsons, head of Special Collections and University Archives at UMW Libraries at the University of Mary Washington, said the project is an excellent way to share UMW Libraries’ collections with new audiences.

“So when VCU reached out to us to gauge our interest in being a partner on the project, we knew that this was a collaboration that would dovetail well with our social justice collections on civil rights and religious freedom,” Parsons said.

“It’s an excellent resource for making these important historical materials easily searchable and available for research, instruction, and study,” she added. “We are looking forward to adding more of our collections to the site.”

The image portal grew out of the Social Welfare History Project, a website created by pioneering social worker Jack Hansan, Ph.D., as a way to help the public understand and appreciate the history of the volunteers and professionals who have worked throughout U.S. history to advance justice and promote the welfare of individuals and families.

In 2016, Hansan invited VCU Libraries to assume responsibility for the project’s digital research materials. He chose VCU, he says, in part because of his confidence in VCU Libraries’ leadership and reputation as a technically advanced library system.

Over the past year, VCU Libraries has worked to add new articles and images to the project, update the site’s design and make it mobile friendly.

“Jack Hansan handed us the baton and we’re running with it,” Campbell said. “We’re looking forward to bringing new partners on board in the future.”

The project isn’t all virtual. University Librarian John E. Ulmschneider is aiming to hold a colloquium in fall 2018 that brings scholars, archivists and librarians for conversations centered around the history and issues raised by these projects.


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