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A Sweeping Story: Social Welfare History Project covers spectrum of our national response to need

October 13, 2017

In the late 1990s, when the Internet was just emerging as a repository for scholarly work and pop culture, Northern Virginia-based  John "Jack" E. Hansan was at the end of a successful career. After more than 40 years as a social worker, administrator, public servant, and leader in his profession, he was retiring. Never one to go slow or sit idle, he had an idea about what would occupy him next. He imagined creating a website that would attractively display the rich complexity of history represented by our nation’s social welfare policies and programs and how they touch the lives of all Americans. Though designed for the general public, this site would include links to archives, libraries, scholarly websites, and other sources of reliable information.

Hansan’s own career reflects the evolution of the social work profession and his personal experiences shaped the Social Welfare History Project. “Social work has changed dramatically over the years, and I am somewhat of an ‘outlier,’ he said “My career was built working in settlement houses, poverty programs, slum neighborhoods, public welfare, etc. During the past 50 years, the profession has moved away from those areas and concentrated on health and mental health care and private practice (counseling) and the value of licensing.”  

With zeal, he got to work, recruiting friends and colleagues to write essays and articles, gathering chapters from colleagues’ books, promoting the project at conferences, and writing biographical sketches of famous figures in the profession. He looked upon the project almost like creating a digital encyclopedia. He sought to organize materials that were both broad and deep--sweeping essays about vast social movements like temperance or civil rights that shook the nation--and specific and accessible--such as pithy biographies of leading lights or succinct write-ups about one piece of legislation or policy direction.

“Despite its size and expenditures, the subject of social welfare lacks the prominence given to other sectors of our society like economics, science, politics, education, and medicine, each of which is the subject of intensive historical study and analysis,” Hansan said.

“Part of the reason for this may be the fact that social welfare has a less clear and distinct history; likewise, it does not have any large natural constituencies championing its study or promotion. Our nation’s social welfare programs have evolved and taken shape largely as a result of economic, political, cultural and religious forces that have interacted, sometimes violently, over 350 years. In many respects, social welfare programs represent the intersection of these political, economic and social conflicts that are a major part of American history. “

According to Hansan, “The history of American social welfare programs is complex and multidimensional. At one level, it is a linear history of the actions taken by early settlers, slaves, immigrants, farmers and urban dwellers to cope with their personal, economic and social problems unbound by the traditions and mores of European nations or the societies from which they or their ancestors fled. Another important dimension is the type of actions or the nature of the responses taken by individuals, families, and governmental units in response to the economic, political, religious and racial forces impacting American society at different times and places, e.g., slavery, industrialization, immigration and migration, child labor, women's suffrage, frontier living, famine, disease, economic depressions and wars. Also contributing to this history are the activities of an influential cadre of talented and passionate women and men who struggled in many different venues to help vulnerable individuals and families or who strove to improve the quality of life for particular groups and classes in American society.”

The Social Welfare History Project website launched in 2010. As creator and manager of the site, Hansan edited and published hundreds of web pages and articles culled from a wide range of sources and touching on a myriad of themes and topics: suffrage, civil rights, the settlement house movement, immigration, poverty, education and the creation of the professional social worker. The site became popular with people searching for reliable information on the open internet. Soon it was used by undergraduate researchers, social studies teachers, History Day students and the general public. Today, it garners about 6,000 unique visits daily.

By 2016, Hansan -- in his eighth decade of life and ready for a real retirement--considered the project’s next phase. From his home in McLean, he had ties to Virginia Commonwealth University: Three of his sons were graduates. Hansan had met University Librarian John E. Ulmschneider, who had studied computer science as an undergraduate in the 70s, and had impressed Hansan as an early adopter of new technologies. He trusted Ulmschneider, who agreed that VCU Libraries would take over responsibility for the Social Wefare History Project site, update its technology and preserve the content as part of its collections and in furthering its efforts at community engagement.

VCU is located in Richmond, the center of many nonprofits and state government, which oversees much of the modern social welfare infrastructure. VCU is also home to one of the oldest and most respected schools of social work in the country. “While our social work curriculum is mostly focused on professional practice, we hope the project might engage some of our social work faculty and students as they do research in their field,” said Ulmschneider. The subjects touched on by the project also intersect with many disciplines, including political science, government and public policy, history, sociology, psychology, health sciences and more.

VCU Libraries adopts the project

“Libraries play active roles as stewards,” said Ulmschneider. “This is what libraries do best, organize and preserve and make available to all materials for future generations of society to use for research purposes.”

Alice Campbell, a librarian with expertise in digital projects, managed the project. With the assistance of M.S.W. candidate Catherine Paul, and with support from the library’s web services and technology team, Campbell has overseen the site’s transformation from Hansan’s early visionary project to its new institutional identity. “We’ve been working for the past year to make the site mobile-friendly, and to expand its usefulness with public domain images from the Library of Congress and National Archives, and embedded documents from the Internet Archive and HathiTrust,” said Campbell.

In addition to updating the site, VCU Libraries created a companion Social Welfare History Image Portal housing photographs, pamphlets, handbills and other primary sources that document the history of social reform and organized responses to human need.

The Image Portal is an ongoing, collaborative effort with institutional partners from across the nation. “The Image Portal lets you examine historic materials closely without having to pay a subscription fee. It’s sort of like a networked “vertical file” where you can find bits and pieces of ephemera, pictures and photographs,” said Campbell.

Project reflects subject’s complexity

Social welfare history is a broad, interdisciplinary field, that studies the evolution of organized activities related to social reform and social services. The questions examined within this discipline are complex: How do we deal with immigration? Who gets to fully participate as a citizen? What shall we do to help the poor? How should we protect and care for our children? How can we help all people to have equal opportunities for fulfilling, productive lives?  

The Social Welfare History Project presents many voices from many eras who have considered these problems and come up with solutions -- some more, and some less successful; some inspiring and some heartbreaking.

Asked about the relevance of these materials, Alice Campbell mused, “Social welfare history is different from the history of wars and the nation’s geographic and economic expansion -- though of course, that’s important. Social welfare history is the history of people working for the common good. But what do we imagine the common good to be? And who will benefit from our efforts? The United States has been working through these issues for so many years, in so many forms. Just look at the headlines; these questions still come up every day. If we don’t understand how we’ve journeyed to the present, how can we hope to make progress in the future?”

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