January 19, 2022

Social Documentary: New Digital Collection of 1400 Late-19th/Early-20th Photos from Columbia University Libraries

From CUL:

Community Service Society Photographs is an online presentation of almost 1,400 photographs from the Community Service Society Archives at CUL/IS’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML). The photographs are a selection of some of the most significant social documentary images taken in New York City from the 1880s through the 1950s.

“The records of the Community Service Society at RBML are one of our most valuable and frequently consulted collections,” said Michael Ryan, Director of the RBML.  “In the early 20th century, it commissioned some of the most noted photographers of the time to document urban poverty, and those photographs form the basis of this marvelous exhibition.”

The photographs document instances of urban poverty, unsafe tenement housing, inadequate hygiene in public areas, and other pressing social issues in late-19th and early-20th century New York City.  In large part, the photographs were commissioned by the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor and the Charity Organization Society, which merged to become the New York City Community Service Society (CSS) in 1939.

Photographers include Jessie Tarbox Beals, Lewis Hine, Hiram Myers, Jacob Riis, and many others.


Subjects documented in the photographs are men, women and children in environments such as bathhouses, tenements, playgrounds, streets, and businesses.  The advocacy for quality of life improvement that prompted these commissions led to wide-ranging improvements in housing, nutrition, sanitation and labor.  Among the legacies initiated or enhanced as a result include free school lunch programs, model tenements, pure milk laws, public bath regulations, the Hospital for Special Surgery, the Provident Loan Society, and the Columbia University School of Social Work.

Direct to Digital Collection: Community Service Society Photographs

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.