A black and white photo of two women
Jean E. Lokerson (left) prepares a learning disabilities simulation program, January 7, 1975. (Photo courtesy of VCU Libraries)

With a prestigious Mellon Foundation grant, VCU Libraries is enhancing its digital Social Welfare History Project

A one-year initiative will focus on the papers of the late Jean Lokerson, the VCU School of Education professor who was a pioneer in the field of learning disabilities.

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Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries has been awarded a $65,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to expand the Social Welfare History Project’s scholarship and broaden accessibility to Special Collections and Archives materials. The grant, one of only three VCU has received from the Mellon Foundation, is an institutional achievement for VCU and a first for VCU Libraries.

The grant allows the Social Welfare History Project to amplify understanding of social justice and human health equity. Specifically, it supports a one-year initiative that will include processing the Jean Lokerson papers, a collection that focuses on policy and program development for people with learning disabilities. Content from these materials will be contextualized and showcased as part of the digital project. 

“We are delighted with the prestige of support from the Mellon Foundation and recognition of the value of this planning grant project as contributing to the cultural and scholarly record,” said Irene Herold, Ph.D., dean of libraries and university librarian. “We are proud of our selection for this award and how it further reflects our dedication to the values of embracing diversity and inclusion to foster excellence through supported and funded work.” 

Expanding public knowledge is key to the Mellon Foundation’s vision. According to its website: “A full and rich cultural and scholarly record is essential to understanding who we are. How we access and interact with books, archives, technology and other artifacts is one of Mellon’s core interests as a grantmaker. By increasing equitable access to resources, and ensuring knowledge production and preservation are just, we can help foster a more informed, heterogeneous and critically engaged society.” 

At VCU, the Social Welfare History Project was launched in 2010 by John E. Hansan, Ph.D., (1930-2019) who researched and gathered articles from social work and social welfare scholars. Seeking to sustain the project, Hansan invited VCU Libraries to assume responsibility for the site. In 2016, VCU Libraries began transforming it from an individual digital research project and has made significant progress to position the site as a sustainable institutional resource.

The Social Welfare History Project has considerable global reach with more than 3,000 visits daily (1.2 million per year), and it is often cited by scholars and in the media. In addition to expanding its content, VCU Libraries has updated the site to contemporary standards related to hosting, accessibility, usability and copyright review, and it has created a 2021-28 seven-year sustainability plan. 

The Mellon Foundation grant will help VCU Libraries pursue the broad vision of the Social Welfare History Project to actively engage diverse communities. "We are excited about the opportunity to improve the project’s sustainability and to test new approaches focused on the broader dissemination of scholarly materials to researchers,” said Karen Bjork, head of digital libraries and publishing.

The archival processing focus of the one-year initiative is the Lokerson Collection. Jean E. Lokerson (1936-2016) was professor emerita at the VCU School of Education and a trailblazer in the area of learning disabilities. Her dedication to improving the lives of children was reflected in her notable service. During the Kennedy administration, she was instrumental in advocating for federal legislation establishing special education in public schools. She continued her work as the Learning Disabilities Association of America representative to the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, and she was a past president of the Division for Learning Disabilities at the Council for Exceptional Children.

The Lokerson Collection has primary source materials that will be of potential value to researchers and people working on national policy development around learning disabilities. High-value portions of the collection will be processed for the Social Welfare History Project.  

Over a one-year period, the initiative will test a new model for VCU Libraries to elevate awareness of and access to “hidden” primary source materials for researchers and the public. The approach is based on processing or mining archival collections with an eye toward creating summary research findings in an existing digital scholarship project.

"Through this grant we will be able to pilot a workflow to enhance the reach of primary sources beyond our traditional archival access points,” said Chrystal Carpenter, head of Special Collections and Archives. “This approach will allow us to quickly and effectively connect materials directly with broader academic and community audiences.”