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.

7 thoughts on “Why Social Workers Need Librarians: A Social Work Perspective

  1. I understand what you mean. I have interviewed Leah Esguerra on two occasions for my research papers on libraries and homeless populations. Luis Herrera, the City Librarian of San Francisco, was intrumental in creating an alliance with the SF Health Department. Their work together generated the idea of bringing in a full-time social worker into SFPL. This situation illustrates that public libraries and social services agencies need to build alliances.

      1. Yes, I would be interested. However, it may take me several weeks to write the post because of the papers I’m writing for my courses.

      2. Please get in touch with us when you are done with the papers. Good luck with the courses! (I’ve got another month of intensive coursework as well…)

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