The California Social Welfare Archives was begun as the California Social Welfare Heritage, dedicated to "the orderly collection and preservation of papers and documents of historical significance in the development of social welfare in California." Originated by George D. Nickel, of Arcadia California, in 1979, and led by Nickel and James Leiby, professor of social welfare at UC Berkeley, the organization's original concept was to divide the collection between the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley and the Arlien Johnson Library at USC. Nickel became the first president of the southern unit, while Leiby was responsible for northern matters.
The organization experienced logistical problems because of the size of the state. Regional interests and loyalties were also a problem. Further, the Bancroft Library declined involvement, on the basis of their over-commitment to other projects. Leiby, the chief person in the north, found it difficult under these circumstances to keep the interest of volunteers in the project. The northern group ultimately disbanded.
The southern group began reorganizing itself to operate independently in 1985, under the leadership of George D. Nickel. At the suggestion of the dean of USC Libraries, the name of the southern group was changed to California Social Welfare Archives (CSWA). Initial attempts were made to gain funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, but these were frustrated, first by the State Archivist, who feared that the CSWA was claiming the right to collect state agency materials, and then by a general moratorium on funding for new projects. The organization instead moved under the organizational umbrella of the University of Southern California, in part to take advantage of its tax-free status.
By 1988, a new set of by-laws was in place for the CSWA. In 1994 the mission statement was revised and adopted by the board of directors.