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Libraries and Social Workers — Perfect Partners
By Christiane Petrin Lambert, MA, MSW, LICSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 20 No. 2 P. 20  

The trend of library social work merges macro and micro practice to serve patrons’ needs not only as a learning resource but also through building community networks, crisis intervention, and meeting unmet social service needs where patrons are.

As we enter the season of political rhetoric, with talking points that include a thriving United States economy, the income gap between the wealthiest among us and those in deepest poverty has become wider (Chappell, 2019). For those on the direst side of the chasm, the spaces in which to find refuge and resources are struggling to meet the demand. This surge of need emerged from the deinstitutionalization movement in the mid to late 20th century, which ushered in community-based channels to support people with mental health, physical, and cognitive needs. However, funding to adequately meet the need was not provided to match the intended ethos of empowerment and has eroded since, leaving some of the most vulnerable members of our communities to scavenge for the support they need.

Movement to Libraries
In an article published in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics, Daniel Yohanna, MD, an associate professor and interim chairman in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, refers to “transinstitutionalization,” moving people with serious mental illness (SMI) from one institutional setting to another—namely prisons, drug treatment facilities, and cycles of stays involving the emergency department, short-term hospitalization, and shelters (Yohanna, 2013). Many people experiencing mental/behavioral health challenges, homelessness, and other products of socioeconomic disparity have sought safe, warm spots where they can access resources such as the internet and a bathroom with no requirement to buy a coffee or join a club/membership. One of the places that has become such a haven is the country’s network of libraries.

The concept of libraries serving as a central gathering place for the community is not new. In fact, accessing and utilizing the resources in a library connotes strength and intelligence, unlike the stigma associated with seeking help in other environments. Libraries around the country offer services such as referrals and assistance for housing, employment and training services, and legal support. Some communities in warmer climates utilize their libraries as cooling and air respite centers. Many also offer programming for socialization, health education, exercise, and yoga. Expanding outreach and a more inclusive array of resources has become an intentional focus for libraries around the country. In fact, in 2017 the American Library Association added a fourth strategic direction: equity, diversity, and inclusion (American Library Association, 2018).

Sara Zettervall, MLIS, a consultant, trainer, and coauthor of Whole Person Librarianship, saw firsthand the importance of equity and inclusion in public libraries through a practicum experience with a community of Somali immigrants to facilitate a summer book club to foster youth leadership. Issues that emerged in her work with the book club were cultural differences and trauma-informed considerations, which prompted her to seek consultation with a social worker who would later become her coauthor, Mary Nienow, MSW, PhD. They were interested in better understanding the intersection of social work and library and information science to enhance practice for both. They started by sharing their experiences and trying to connect with other colleagues doing this work—first through a blog, then presenting at librarianship conferences, and then they were approached to write the book. They conducted original research for the book, “casting a wide net” with surveys, focus groups, and interviews. The trend seemed to take root first with the library science field, and then with social work. “The librarian world was hungry for information and growth about this possibility, recognizing that relationships are the new reference collection,” Nienow says.

Building a Coalition
Noah Lenstra, PhD, an assistant professor of library and information science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is interested in the intersection of health promotion and library science. In his book, Healthy Living at the Library, Lenstra describes libraries as “safe and trusted spaces” broadened to include garden initiatives and food justice and equity programming such as summer feeding programs and food banks. His interest emerged from the trend of libraries providing digital literacy services in partnership with older adult centers. This provided an “impetus to address the gap in health promotion related to reference transactions in libraries, as people come in to learn more about pressing life concerns.” The next step was to provide the connections to address those concerns. The need to take that step in Greensboro came into sharp focus with the death of Marcus Deon Smith, a library patron who died in police custody after being arrested when he was seen “erratically moving in and out of traffic” (Barron, 2019). A local paper reported that Smith was experiencing a mental health crisis and was seeking help when he was arrested and later died. His death raised awareness in the Greensboro community about the need to come together to address social inequities.

In order to outfit libraries with both knowledge and resources, library scholars and practitioners are turning to collaborations with the field of social work. In fact, after learning about the potential pairing of disciplines at a national conference, Lenstra served as a bridge with social work faculty at the University of North Carolina to develop an internship experience for four social work students in two local libraries—Greensboro and High Point. He describes his role as “just bringing everyone to the table”—the dean of social work, the field coordinator, and the library directors. Starting this past August 2019, social work students work alongside library staff to meet an array of social service needs including housing, linkages for food security, transportation, vocational support, and advocacy. He reports this interdisciplinary pairing as “an amazing collaboration that has taken very little work to orchestrate.” And he shares that there is “a lot of learning with each other.” Recent training experiences involved the interns and library staff learning de-escalation skills from social work faculty, as well as a professional development workshop with Zettervall. Lenstra continues to support and build the collaboration as part of his research.

Similarly in the Northeast, Rachel D. Williams, PhD, an assistant professor in the school of library and information science in the College of Organizational, Computational, and Information Sciences at Simmons University, gives attention to “the perspectives of public librarians acting in social support roles.” Along with a colleague in social work, Williams explores “how public librarians can learn from the expertise of social workers and better understand issues related to partnering together. We also explore self-care, resilience, boundaries, and the knowledge and skills that influence how public librarians interact with and support people in crisis.” Much like Zettervall’s experience, Williams’ work in public libraries, facing patrons in crisis and engaging with other service needs that she felt unequipped to meet, inspired her to learn more about partnerships with social workers. She, along with Lenstra, is interested in research to inform how library schools can integrate social work concepts into the Master of Library and Information Studies, or MLIS, curriculum and better prepare students for the social issues they will face with their patrons, such as homelessness, serious mental illness, and addiction. Williams also notes, “I think the social work world is gaining interest in this area because the public library is a crucial and core space for all people, particularly those who may have nowhere else to go or who do not feel welcome in other spaces.”

Social Work Perspectives
The Public Library Association (PLA), a division of the American Library Association, started a task force in 2018 meant to “develop and recommend a strategic and coordinated approach for libraries trying to better address the social service needs of their patrons” (Public Library Association, 2020a). Jean Badalamenti, MSW, health and human services manager at DC Public Library, serves as cochair of the Social Worker Task Force for the PLA. She reports that there are about three dozen public libraries across the United States that have social workers as either part-time or full-time staff in various models, with the first credited to San Francisco through the work of Leah Esguerra, LMFT, who also serves as a cochair of the PLA task force. Badalamenti was hired in 2015 at the DC Public Library with the specific charge to address growing homelessness among patrons, “to work at the system level re: homelessness; designing programs and services and leveraging expertise of other agencies in the city to address the needs.” She describes the role of “library social work” as both “micro and macro—a broad scope” including serving patrons’ needs, building networks of resources and services with community providers, crisis management and de-escalating situations, and technical assistance with library staff. Staff training includes serving patrons with serious mental illness, causes and solutions of homelessness, bystander intervention, and trauma-informed approaches. She also facilitates a partnership with DC’s Department of Corrections, manages a small library at the DC jail, works with the Department of Health to train staff on opioid overdose prevention, and works on equity initiatives at the DC Library. Through a partnership with the DC Department of Behavioral Health, she was able to bring in three certified peer specialists who have lived experience of homelessness, are in recovery, or had been involved in the criminal justice system, who connect with patrons at 11 branches. She reports that library staff are “thrilled to have the services—particularly the peers—and would love one in every library from morning until night to spend one-to-one time with patrons.”

David Perez, MSW, serves as a bilingual social worker (English/Spanish) and social work and diversity services manager for the Long Branch Free Public Library in NJ. He is also a member of the PLA task force. He started at the library as an intern in 2015. Since then, his internship became a full-time position with support from state and municipal leaders. He notes, “Together we have built this process. I have access to engage in full-service social work. I engage at the city, county, state, and national levels. This is a unique venue for social work.” His work includes reentry programming, literacy initiatives, and diversity awareness. When asked about networks of support for his service in library social work, he shared that in addition to the PLA task force, there is also the PLA Social Work Interest Group, an online learning community for anyone interested in knowing more about social work in public libraries. This platform offers a discussion board, space for shared resources, current events, and a digital space to connect across the miles for those pioneering in this new practice of social work (Public Library Association, 2020b).

Patrick Lloyd, LMSW, serves as a community resources coordinator for the Georgetown Public Library in Georgetown, TX, a single branch system in a city of approximately 75,000 people. He is also a member of the PLA task force. He shares, “Working here is a textbook example of meeting people where they are. In this job, I have only what the patron chooses to tell me on a given day. I don’t have access to case notes or court reports or family histories. This can be both frustrating and somewhat liberating to simply live in the present conversation with folks.” Lloyd works with people who are facing a range of challenges, from homelessness to older adults needing for help with lawn care. He talks about the nuance of library social work in not assuming patrons want or need your help but making yourself available to them. This is in line with trauma-informed practice and honoring clients’ need for privacy. He also noted his care to not deter patrons who are seeking respite from the Texas sun. In fact, he has developed ways of imparting social work values—boundaries, privacy, self-determination—to his library colleagues. He reflects about working with a 16-year-old young woman without a permanent home who was migrating from couch to couch when her grandmother could not allow her to stay in her subsidized apartment due to occupancy restrictions. “I mostly just listened to her and tried to offer her some of the support that she wasn’t getting from anyone else in her life.” In addition, Lloyd provided linkages to child protective services and help with building a résumé. After losing touch for a time, she returned to the library to share that she has a child of her own and a job, and is doing well. He explains, “In this rural community, often the most substantive resource or intervention I have at my disposal is the library itself and the relationships that exist within it.”

Future Vision, Challenges, and Opportunities
Lenstra projects that the partnerships between libraries and social work are “at the innovation stage—only at the beginning of knowing what’s possible.” Hosting social work students is a first step and has demonstrated significant potential. The next phase is to secure permanent funding to advance this trend. Lenstra purports the economic realities and need for a sustainable business model for library social work. Zettervall shares the following three possible models:

• hiring social workers as permanent library staff members (not funded through grants or other temporary funding), with funding integrated into municipal budgets;

• hosting social workers from local government or community provider agencies in libraries, with reporting structures and support available through their employers; and

• expanding social work internship experiences in all libraries as well as enriched social work consultation to add social work awareness to library practice such as cultural humility and person in environment.

Williams says, “I believe that with this partnership, librarians will learn more about engaging with and supporting library users in ways that align not just with the professional values of librarians but those of social workers as well.”

Zettervall highlights the importance of aligning accreditation needs so students get the experiences they need and meet the needs of library patrons as well as influencing scholarship for both fields. Library scholars anticipate the trend to extend to academic libraries as well.

“Librarians bring research and information to social problems, and social workers can help with navigating the helping environment—making it as simple as possible in a complex service landscape,” Badalamenti says.

Looking to the future, Lloyd envisions libraries hiring more staff members who are representative of the communities they serve, with more people of color in helping positions in the library. He also noted the geographical isolation of his current role. “I’m the only one in the state that is doing this work, as of now.”

Badalamenti also stresses the need to expand library social work to other pressing community needs such as immigration justice.

Williams refers to libraries as one of the last institutions that is truly free and open to all community members.

Badalamenti describes the library as “without barriers, where you don’t need an ID or to buy anything, which is especially important in gentrifying communities and as we are moving to a cashless system.” As economic prosperity eludes those most vulnerable in our communities, library social work proves a growing presence to meet them where they are.

— Christiane Petrin Lambert, MA, MSW, LICSW, works in community clinical practice; serves as a consultant for program planning, development, and evaluation; and is adjunct faculty at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work.


American Library Association. (2018). ALA strategic planning. Retrieved January 30, 2020, from http://www.ala.org/aboutala/strategicplan.

Barron, R. M. (2019, September 8). Marcus Smith supporters mark the anniversary of his death with vigil; Family ‘still lost, still confused with unanswered questions’. Greensboro News and Record. Retrieved February 5, 2020, from https://www.greensboro.com/news/local_news/marcus-smith-supporters-mark-the-anniversary-of-his-death-with/article_30f91206-73a1-5ced-8b27-e9b89ea5cdd2.html#5.

Chappell, B. (2019, September 26). U.S. income inequality worsens, widening to a new gap. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/09/26/764654623/u-s-income-inequality-worsens-widening-to-a-new-gap.

Public Library Association. (2020a). Social worker task force. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/pla/about/people/committees/pla-tfsocwork.

Public Library Association. (2020b). Social work interest group. Retrieved from https://connect.ala.org/pla/communities/community-home/digestviewer?communitykey=5c2df085-e960-4608-87e7-fc132b3a43d9&tab=digestviewer.

Yohanna, D. (2013). Deinstitutionalization of people with mental illness: Causes and consequences. Virtual Mentor, 15(10), 886-891.