The Pursuit of Social Work as a Previous Librarian

By Julie Row, MILS, MSW

An article from the blog post on March 31, 2013 has stated that a social worker must carefully consider their audience when they share information online. Not only is this important in regards to ethics, but it is also my personal motive for this post.

I always receive a different response from individuals when I share my professional history. Many are surprised, some are confused, and others are curious. I always discuss my decision to pursue social work after working as a librarian. It is often pleasing to observe their reaction when I explain the connection between serving the public as a librarian then as a social worker in a low income neighborhood.

I was the primary youth librarian for a mid-sized branch in a low income neighborhood for approximately 26 months. I created a safe space for the teens to visit in the afternoons, where daily after school programs and monthly events were organized. I also administered two summer reading programs, with celebration parties that had special guests such as a state Senator.

Eventually, a strong level of mutual respect began to develop between myself and the teen patrons. As a result, a few of the teens also started to confide in me. Personal issues were shared, that I knew as a youth librarian, I was not professionally allowed to handle. I discussed such matters with my supervisor who advised me to contact an available social worker. I took the initiative as a librarian to find the contact information of a local social services agency for one of the teens. There was no more that I could do.

Therefore, I began the process of researching the field of social work. I assessed from my research that a potential social worker would be able to provide a broad range of services. I also respected the purpose of leading the client to empowerment and self sufficiency. Consequently, I made the decision to enroll in a master’s degree program.

In my opinion, the importance of serving the public is indisputably consistent in both social work and library science. Whether it be through books or mental health services, the local community and its needs are central. However, if a potential student knows that they will work in a public library, additional coursework regarding workplace culture and social issues may need to be considered. A possible concentration in public librarianship can be developed for library science programs in larger cities.

I successfully completed the master’s degree program and I can now pursue a license in social work. Due to this accomplishment, I can finally help teens who may be experiencing significant issues.

Julie Row, MILS, MSW, is a recent graduate of the master’s degree program of social work from the University of Southern California.  She is also a graduate of the information and library science program from the Pratt Institute in New York, where she worked as a librarian specializing in urban public library services for youth between the ages of 13 through 18 years.  She is a strong advocate for diverse communities, including youth with special needs. 

Questions for the Co-Location of Library and Social Work Services

By Mary Wagner, MLS, PhD

Mary Nienow in her blog post, “Why Social Workers Need Librarians,” on April 7, 2013, offers challenging and exciting ideas for intersection of Social Work and Library/Information Science.

Two recent newspaper articles, “How Public Libraries Have Become Spare Homeless Shelters” (AlterNet, March 6, 2013) and “Security Getting Tougher at Downtown Minneapolis Library” (Star Tribune, February 5, 2013), provide current examples of Neinow’s comments.  In both cases city/county social workers are “officing” in the public library, where they search out and assist those with housing and other economic needs.  How do these social workers and the librarians interact in their common goal of serving community members?

There are knowledges and skills unique to each profession.  Given co-location of service, can we think about cross-training between librarians and social workers in the same way librarians and technology experts cross-train in libraries to make seamless service to library users?

As public librarians increasingly claim their libraries to be community gathering spaces, there is need to explore how MLIS programs can expand curriculum to accommodate a more interdisciplinary approach to developing service orientation and skills. Conversation with social workers and social work educators seems to be a starting place.

I am interested in feedback from both social workers and librarians.  How could your work be enhanced by greater knowledge of the others’ work practices?  Where do theories and practices in each discipline support each other?  Where do they clash?  If there is greater interaction between the two disciplines, how will this interaction shape the future of public library space and services?  If there were a one-day conference to explore these topics, would you come? What would you share by way of experiences, topics,  questions?

Please, comments are welcome!

Mary Wagner, MLS, PhD, is Professor Emeritus at Saint Catherine University where she joined the library and information science faculty in 1975. She has helped develop the curriculum in the MLIS program and served as program chair multiple times. She recently returned from Zambia where she spent 2010-2011 on a Fulbright Scholarship teaching at the University of Zambia in Lusaka and helping build library services for children and young adults.

Recentering the Public Good

Happy National Library Week (April 14-20, 2013)! Check out your local library for ways to support and celebrate libraries in your community.

Celebrate National Library Week

In my introduction to library and information science class, I learned about the values enshrined in the Library Bill of Rights. The document was drafted by the professional organization for the field, the American Library Association (ALA), and first adopted in 1939 with periodic amendments throughout the end of the 20th century. The document embodies the ideals of intellectual freedom and equal access to information for all community members; these ideals are based on the reasoning that a democratic citizenry must be well-informed.

Last year, during an informal get together to think about the intersection of librarianship and social work, I learned about the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which details the ethical behavior that social workers who are part of the professional organization must adhere to as representatives of their field. The code lays out the core values of the profession: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence along with the related principles that social workers should embody.

I’ve been thinking about these two documents as manifestations of how librarianship and social work are professions based in the public good and outside the calculus of market value. Yet, at least in librarianship, there has been a steady encroachment of market thinking into the way libraries are run–from the increasing expectations that libraries generate revenue to cover costs through add-on services like book and dvd rentals to the use of performance measures and rubrics that privilege efficiency and other values over the ones identified in the Library Bill of Rights.* I would like to think through these two documents in the coming months on this blog and invite others to share their thoughts as well. I will revisit these documents in more detail to explore their connections as well as what they might reveal about possible collaborations between professionals from the two fields, drawing on complementary training and strengths.

Here are some preliminary questions I have for this exploration:

During class discussion about the Library Bill of Rights, the professor mentioned an interesting detail about the document–that it focuses on the library as an institution rather than on librarians as the professionals who perform services. While this focus makes sense in some ways, as does the naming of the professional organization for the library rather than librarians, it has one side effect of de-emphasizing the people who protect intellectual freedom and provide equal access. In contrast, the Code of Ethics for the NASW is framed explicitly as guidelines for how social workers much enact their principles, including competencies that they must be able to demonstrate. What difference does this framing make for the way professionals in the fields relate to their core values?

In What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (FSG, 2012), Michael J. Sandel argues that the importing of market logic into areas of life, society, and politics that traditionally have been governed by different values leads to the risk of degrading society’s morals. He argues not that market values are immoral in themselves but that when applied to certain things, there is a risk of corrupting how people view those things, as when people put a price on babies for adoption, women’s bodies to carry fetuses, and faster access to government services.** While there is a lot of important discussion in the library world about how to make services more efficient and economical in order to continue providing services for the public good, these discussions often take for granted that economically difficult times means less money for public services rather than a questioning of larger economic processes that have eroded the availability of public funds in favor of privatized investments. What kinds of conversations can librarians and social workers foster in and between their fields to challenge the new public philosophy?

Public libraries are rooted in the communities they serve and aim to respond to the needs and issues faced by individuals in those communities. How can social workers’ deep commitments to serving the needs of clients and valuing the dignity and human worth of people help librarians connect with the library community in more robust ways?

How can social workers’ explicit articulation of a social justice philosophy enrich the Library Bill of Rights’ more implicit affirmation of social justice via noncensorship and nondiscrimination against users?

Paul Lai is a graduate student in library and information science at Saint Catherine University with interests in scholarly communications, public library philosophy, special collections, and literacy dogs in libraries. He is a blogger at Hack Library School and also studies Asian American literature.


* John Buschman’s Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy (Libraries Unlimited, 2003) offers an excellent discussion of how the last few decades in the United States have seen a marked dissolution of the boundaries between the market economy and the public sphere, to the detriment of the public good. Buschman’s thesis on the new public philosophy also appears in shortened form in “On Libraries and the Public Sphere,” Library Philosophy and Practice, 7.2 (2005).

** A shortened version of Sandel’s argument appears in “What Isn’t for Sale?,” The Atlantic (April 2012).

Why Social Workers Need Librarians: A Social Work Perspective

By Mary C. Nienow, MSW

The field of social work is a broad one. Social workers can be found in schools, hospitals, state agencies, nonprofits, for-profits, and everywhere in-between. One important but missing venue is libraries. I have been in the field of social work for fifteen years and I have never heard of libraries employing social workers.* This seems like a lost opportunity for our profession.

More and more it appears that libraries are the heart of our changing communities, especially in urban areas. The digital divide is conquered through free access to computers in libraries. English language classes are taught in libraries. Community meetings are held in libraries. Information of every kind is available in libraries.

Social workers are trained to be good communicators, information brokers, and organizers. We understand the complex interaction of structure and culture. We bring a “person in their environment” perspective to all the work we do. Knowing how to ask good questions and elicit relevant information in order to problem solve is a part of our requisite skill set. What better place to employ this skill set than in a library setting?

One particular issue that clients of social workers face is the stigma of needing help. Being situated in the library partially removes this stigma as the library is a place everyone goes to find help-whether it’s a research report on butterflies, using a computer for a job search or registering to vote. The combination of a non- pejorative setting with trained professionals available to offer this assistance is an exciting concept.

Working hand-in-hand with the trained libraries would be an essential component to this venture. I am not as familiar with the training of librarians, but from my observation they come to their work with an analytical mindset. They appear to have a wide grasp of how and where to access needed information. They never seem to get flustered (at least from the outside!) when presented with a particular request for information. This calm and strategic approach to problem solving is something that social workers could benefit from greatly. We are trained in research methods, but often times we want to solve the problem quickly without taking the time to really understand the solutions being presented. This is understandable given the myriad of issues with which social workers are confronted: hunger, poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, abuse and joblessness. Wanting to end the suffering of another human being is natural and commendable. However, action without thought can have unintended, even harmful consequences. Thought without action can never lead to the resolution of plaguing problems. Together social workers and librarians can make a dynamic and powerful difference in the lives of people they are both called to serve.

I hope we can continue to dialogue on this fascinating concept of social work and libraries. I would love to hear more from librarians that have often wished they had a social worker on their staff. How would that have helped you accomplish your work more effectively? In what ways would the patrons of your library benefit from the services of a social worker? What do you need to know more about when it comes to social work? What can you share with social workers to help them better understand the world of libraries and the resources you bring through your experience and training? Breaking down the silos between our professions is exciting and I look forward to forging a partnership between us.

Mary C. Nienow, MSW, is the Director of Internships and Clinical Instructor in the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Department of Social Work, as well as a PhD Candidate in the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work, focusing on macro practice. She most recently served as the Executive Director of Child Care WORKS, a statewide child care advocacy non profit in Minnesota. Before joining Child Care WORKS, Mary was the lead researcher on Health and Human Services budgets and policy for the Minnesota Senate DFL Caucus.

* Editor’s note: Librarians may know of the social worker hired by the San Francisco Public Library that made news in 2010. But, the fact that we’re still talking about this one example (and an interested social worker hasn’t heard of it) shows there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress. It may be worth compiling a list of other examples, if they’re out there.