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Chambers, Clarke A.

in: People

Clarke A. Chambers (1921 – 2015) — Researcher, Professor of History and Founder of the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota


Clarke A. Chambers
Clarke A. Chambers
Photo: NASW Foundation

Introduction: Clarke Chambers has been recognized for his excellence in teaching, research and writing, and service to the University of Minnesota. However, his most lasting contribution will be his long and effective commitment to preservation and accessibility of historically valuable documents and public appreciation of archival activity, particularly in the field of social welfare history. He founded the Social Welfare History Archives of the University of Minnesota as a means of inspiring the preservation of the records of an entire field of human endeavor that might otherwise have largely fallen through the cracks.

Brief Biography: Clarke A. Chambers was born in Blue Earth, Minnesota on June 3, 1921, the son of physician Winslow Clarke Chambers and Anna Anderson Chambers. He received his B.A. from Carleton College in January 1943 and enlisted that same month in the U.S. Army Air Forces, 29th Bomber Command. He was trained as a weather observer and was stationed in the Western Pacific in the spring of 1944, having married his college sweetheart Florence earlier that year.

Following the war, Chambers received his M.A. (1947) and Ph.D. (1950) from the University of California-Berkeley, where he taught American history 1950-1951, and served again as guest professor in 1961-1962. He was appointed professor of American History at the University of Minnesota in 1951, where he remained the rest of his career, serving as department chair, 1971-1976, and retiring from his regular appointment in 1990.

Professional Career: In the 1950’s Chambers began a research project that culminated with the publication of Seedtime for Reform: American Social Services and Special Action, 1918-1933 (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1963). In it, he demonstrated that many of the federal government’s social initiatives of the New Deal had their roots in the earlier voluntary-sector activities. In order to make this case that substantially reshaped the prevailing views of the 1920’s, he “went to the primary sources” and found them to be largely inaccessible.

At that time few archives and historical societies demonstrated any interest in the records of social service organizations — it was an era in which archivists’ and historians’ perceptions of the past were confined to the political, social, business, and literary elite. Through persistence and diligence he was able to locate and use old records still in the possession of organizations like the National Federation of Settlements and the National Association of Social Workers, records that had survived through simple inertia than as the result of conscious preservation efforts.

Clarke A. Chambers with Andrea Hinding, who became the first curator of the Social Welfare History Archives.
Clarke A. Chambers with Andrea Hinding, who became the first curator of the Social Welfare History Archives.
Photo: University of Minnesota

Founding the Social Welfare History Archives Center: Realizing that the records to which he had gained access were potentially valuable for many other researchers as well, he called their existence to the attention of a number of historic societies and manuscript libraries. Failing to arouse any significant interest — too many commitments and processing backlogs in existing interests – he came back to his home institution, the University of Minnesota, and persuaded University and library administrators of the value of establishing an archival home for such records.

The Social Welfare History Archives Center acquired its first collection and employed a library assistant to begin processing in 1964.  Today, the Social Welfare History Archives is well established as the depository with primary responsibility for the records of national voluntary social service organizations. Now, as then, most of these organizations are not large enough to be able to maintain their own archives in a formal matter, nor are their records likely to fall within the collecting scope of other depositories. It is due to Professor Chambers’ vision and efforts that the records of an entire field are available to shape our historical understanding.

In the formative years of the Social Welfare History Archives, Professor Chambers was responsible for collection development. What he did transcended collecting — he convinced the social work profession of the importance of understanding its history and preserving the records through which it can be studied. He met with individual association executives and captured their historical imagination. He became a sought-after speaker at professional conferences such as the National Conference on Social Welfare and the Council on Social Work Education. A series of his papers had a lasting effect in legitimizing the place of history in the social work curriculum. He translated this vision into more concrete terms by providing settlement houses and homes for unwed mothers with guidelines for the kinds of records that should be preserved. As more social welfare history records came to be collected, he called attention to their existence and value with articles on “The Archives of Social Welfare” in several successive editions of the Encyclopedia of Social Work.

Professor Chambers was active with the National Conference on Social Welfare and was responsible for the publication of essays by historians involved in their 100th Annual Forum. It was called “Actuary of Concern.”  In November, 1965, the NCSW’s National Board voted to deposit its official records in the Center and at that time he was quoted as saying, “The Center’s program is based upon the belief that knowledge of the history of social services is essential to those who formulate policies and programs to meet current needs.”  One of Professor Chambers’ earliest publications was “Paul U. Kellogg and the Survey.

Republished from: NASW Foundation

For more information, visitUniversity of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): NASW Foundation (2004). Clarke A. Chambers (1921 – 2015) — Researcher, professor of history and founder of the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from