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From charity to social enterprise

Celebrating the history of social work education and practice in N.L.

By Danielle Devereaux

It started as a plan for a simple book proposal.

A black and white illustrated portrait of Iris Kirby, a white woman in her late 20s.
Iris Kirby
Photo: Digital Archives Initiative

It became a decade-long deep dive by two social work professors into the history of social work education and practice, resulting in an exhibit and digital archive collection.

A flood in the basement of the school’s building helped serve as a catalyst.

“I was very concerned about the potential loss of valuable history when the flood was discovered,” said Dr. Donna Hardy Cox, Memorial’s associate vice-president (academic) students who was dean of the School of Social Work at the time. “But I was delighted when I found an undamaged, hardbound manuscript of Iris Kirby’s final paper towards her bachelor of social work degree while wading through the water.”

Holding that piece of history in her hands, Dr. Hardy Cox knew it needed to be preserved.

From there, she and Dr. Michelle Sullivan, a now retired professor of social work, realized they needed to help tell the school’s history and the evolution of social work practice in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Our School of Social Work was developed in tandem with other allied health professions at Memorial, like medicine and nursing,” Dr. Hardy Cox said. “Social work was seen as one of the three major areas the newly confederated government wanted to advance in the province. The government and university leaders of the day saw the value in promoting this type of education and work, and that history needs to be preserved and celebrated.”

Digital Archive Initiative

Memorial’s Digital Archives Initiative provides a gateway to the learning and research-based cultural resources held by the university and partnering organizations that reinforce the importance, past and present, of Newfoundland and Labrador’s history and culture.

The history of social work digital archive collection aligns with the library’s mandate.

“One of the things we have been looking at from an archival perspective are the voices that have not been captured in our collections,” said Colleen Quigley, head of Archives and Special Collections, Memorial University Libraries. “Social work by its very nature is about addressing the voices and the needs of the vulnerable and the marginalized. This collection has connections with Memorial and the community and has huge potential for future researchers.”

A black and white illustration of nuns in habits in an economically depressed neighbourhood in 1842..
1842: Three members of the Sisters of Mercy from Ireland in St. John’s. They were known as the “Walking Nuns” as they visited the sick and the poor.
Photo: Submitted

While the digitized collection is chinched with information, both Drs. Hardy Cox and Sullivan say it is in no way complete.

In particular, they’d like to see people add information on service delivery development from all coves and corners of the province and a diversity of perspectives.

“What we have now is a jumping off point,” said Dr. Sullivan. “We’re hoping that faculty, students, social workers, alumni and members of the public are going to delve deeper into the collection and help broaden it by using and contributing to it.”

Complementary exhibit

To complement the digital collection, the researchers created a portable exhibit.

From Charity Model to Social Enterprise: The History of the Social Work Profession and Education in Newfoundland and Labrador is a set of 14 panels that highlight key points in the development of social work education and practice and showcase photos and artifacts from the collection.

An exhibition and official launch for the project was held, live and online, at the Queen Elizabeth II Library in March to align with National Social Work Month.

Two women behind a podium with a pop up banner that says "Roots of Modern Social Welfare" on it.
From left are Drs. Donna Hardy Cox and Michelle Sullivan at the launch of the School of Social Work’s digital archive collection at the Queen Elizabeth II Library.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Drs. Donna Hardy Cox and Michelle Sullivan will continue to showcase their work across the province during the spring and fall of 2024.

Upcoming events include an exhibit at Admiralty House Communications Museum Annex in Mount Pearl, running from April 26-May 4; an event at The Rooms in St. John’s on May 2; and an exhibit at Gallery ’59, Gander Airport, from June 3-9, with further events in the works for Corner Brook and Happy Valley Goose Bay in the fall.

For more information on these upcoming events, please contact Dr. Donna Hardy Cox or Dr. Michelle Sullivan. For information on the history of social work digital archive collection, or if you have materials you’d like to contribute to it, please contact archives@mun.ca.


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