Libraries and Social Workers — Perfect Partners
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
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
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
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
• 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.
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.