A Trip to Social Work’s Past, Guided by School Librarian Sophie Leveque

September 20, 2019 @ 7:21 pm
By Joshua Cole, Communications

Communications writer Joshua Cole shares his time-travel adventure of last month, which took him to the sub-basement home of the as-yet-uncurated Social Work Agency Collection. Don’t miss the slide show at the end of Cole’s post.

It’s a hot and humid August afternoon in New York City. I head a few blocks up Amsterdam Avenue to the International Affairs Building, the home of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). I pass the elevators on the ground floor and descend to the lower level to reach my destination, the Lehman Social Sciences Library. It feels good to be trading blinding daylight for the Library’s cool, dry fluorescence, but it occurs to me that, on a more comfortable sort of day, I might find the Library’s Cold War-era interior a tad depressing. A comparison to an unearthed bomb shelter is not without merit.

Sophie Leveque greets me at the Library’s entrance. She appears to be in her element as she leads the way to our ultimate destination, the Social Work Agency Collection, consisting of materials earmarked for the archives of the Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW), some of which date back to the 1700s and 1800s. A trained librarian, Leveque worked at Marsh’s Library, the oldest public library in Ireland, before joining Columbia University in January. She also enjoyed a stint at the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, which was founded in 1849 to “preserve, examine all ancient monuments and memorials of the arts, manners and customs of the past, as connected with the antiquities language, literature and history of Ireland.”

Now serving as librarian for both the Columbia School of Social Work and SIPA, Leveque exudes enthusiasm about her job of helping students and faculty at both Columbia graduate schools further their knowledge, whether that means delving into past materials or seeking out the latest research.

Speaking of the latter, Leveque will appear on the September 25 episode of our School’s weekly Social Impact LIVE program to discuss the campaign she is leading at Columbia to edit Wikipedia entries with social justice in mind—a present- and future-facing activity, to be sure. She recently helped organize a university-wide Wikipedia edit-a-thon, the first in a series that will continue at CSSW in October. She’s also the author of Trans / Active: A Biography of Gwendolyn Ann Smith, about the woman who began the Transgender Day of Remembrance in honor of those killed in anti-transgender violence. That book, it turns out, is an extension of the first Wikipedia page on Smith, which Leveque created at an edit-a-thon in college.

SIGN UP NOW for Sophie Leveque’s Social Impact LIVE interview.

But today our focus is the past. Leveque has promised to share with me a few of the historical treasures she has already uncovered within the Social Work Agency Collection. (Notably, Leveque may bring a few of these materials to talk about at the end of her Social Impact LIVE appearance.)

Social Work Agency Collection Stacks

As we make our way down another flight of stairs to the shelves housing the Collection, I start thinking about how little I know about Columbia University’s library system. Like most people, when I hear the word “library” in association with Columbia, I think of the neoclassical Butler Library or the iconic Low Memorial Library—which is, in fact, no longer a library, even though the words THE LIBRARY OF COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY are still confidently etched in its façade. (Low’s stacks were moved across College Walk to Butler in 1934.)

And while Butler is the largest of the Libraries’ facilities, it is but one of more than a dozen library locations across the Morningside, Manhattanville, and Medical Center campuses. Columbia Libraries is the eighth largest library collection and the sixth largest academic collection in the United States.1, 2 Home to over 13 million volumes spanning 450 languages and 4,000 years of human knowledge, the system serves 4 million visitors each year, as well as 20 million others who access the system online.3 It takes a small army—Columbia Libraries employs more than 350 staff—to maintain all of these collections and service all of these requests.

I think about the times when I’ve sat doing my work in the Social Work Library, on the second floor of the Social Work Building, which in itself is impressive, comprising 75,000 physical volumes. And now I am about to catch my first glimpse of one of its “gems”: the Social Work Agency Collection housed in Lehman Library, which I have braved several scorching (uphill!) blocks to see it.

Leveque explains that the collection contains thousands of historical books, journals, pamphlets, film reels, and various other ephemera. While the bulk of the materials date back to the 20th century, there are a fair number of items that originated in the mid-1800s, and even a few that have survived surprisingly well since the late 1700s.

Camping Trends and Public Areas (1938)

My first impression is, what a collection! How does a paper titled “Camping Trends and Public Areas” get categorized as social work? An argument could be made for its inclusion, I suppose, from a mental/public health perspective, though I feel curious as to how many CSSW scholars have consulted this particular work since its publication in 1938. Or perhaps the concept of “Practicum Learning” has changed over the years?

As a writer on the School of Social Work’s communications team, I’ve been fascinated by the sheer breadth of topics and disciplines with which contemporary social work is concerned. Forced migration, for instance, is not an issue I had ever considered as a social worker’s domain before I came to work for the School. Viewed through that frame, I guess the collection’s eclectic array of topics should not be surprising.

Not all of the materials are a surprise, of course. Plenty of them relate directly to CSSW itself, such as annual reports of the Charity Organization Society (the founding entity of CSSW), as well as a History of the New York School of Social Work, as CSSW was called from 1917 to 1963.

Visit Columbia School of Social Work’s Historical Timeline.

Illustration from Report on the Penitentiary System of the United States (1822)

There are also colossal tomes of English Poor Laws from the 1800s, volumes of the Bulletin of Suicidology from the 1960s, and reports on the U.S. penitentiary system from the early 1800s (the last of which contains illustrations of prison buildings so beautifully rendered that one wonders if the building exteriors were meant to distract from the conditions within).

Just as some topics have fallen out of fashion—“Rickets Must Go!” declared one pamphlet regarding a disease all but eliminated in this country since the 1940s—so too has some of the terminology. Gone are the days when social workers were concerned with helping “vagabonds,” “paupers,” and “the hobo.”

The Crisis (1947)

I flip through a stack of The Crisis magazine, which W.E.B. DuBois started up in 1910, as the house magazine of the fledgling NAACP—said to be the most widely read and influential periodical about race and social injustice in U.S. history. Headlines having to do with civil rights, current events, international affairs, and culture catch my eye. One issue, from 1949, features on its cover a family who had just moved into the Riverton housing complex in Harlem—one of three developments the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company built in Manhattan as havens for returning World War II veterans (the other two, Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, did not accept black and Hispanic tenants). I recall that several years ago, Mayor de Blasio had to step in to ensure that the Riverton would remain rent stabilized.

The collection is mostly organized by subject matter, but I think that it might be instructive to view the materials chronologically, to see the ebb and flow of social work topics over time, the epochs and eras of social work as a field of study. Of course, I imagine such a reorganization—and the effort to correct it—would be more than a single individual could handle. Among her many other duties, Leveque is charged with sorting through the entire collection and deciding what gets kept, what gets digitized, and what gets removed. As she walks me to the exit, she tells me she expects it to be a five-year project.

I climb the stairs and compel myself back out into the heat of the August afternoon. I stand there squinting against the sunshine, thinking about how daunting Leveque’s project seems. Not only the quantity of materials she has to sift through but also the responsibility of deciding what must go and what might be historically relevant some decades and centuries from now. Later, I learn that, in library sciences, this act is called “weeding.” It seems that Leveque has her own “practicum work” ahead of her!

The slide show below is intended to convey the sense of being immersed in the Social Work Agency Collection.