Whole Person Librarianship: The Start of a Manifesto

I had the good fortune to spend much of the last week in the company of other smart, enthusiastic librarians on the upswing in their careers at MILE, Minnesota’s local version of ALA’s Emerging Leaders program. Among many other positive aspects of the experience was that it brought together librarians from all types of librarianship (well, maybe not all—we had one token corporate librarian) in a way that focused on our commonalities as professionals and leaders, rather than dividing us by subject area as conferences so often (and understandably) do. As someone who always feels compelled to look for the commonalities in disparate themes, this was especially appealing to me and ties back to what I’ve been grappling with as I think about the trajectory of this blog.

When I started thinking more deeply about how librarians and social workers can help each other, I was working in a public library and looking forward to building a career as a public librarian. When I agreed to work with Paul on this blog, I still had one foot in public librarianship, but that quickly changed as I was hired into my current position as Associate to the University Librarian at the University of Minnesota. Where I’m working has no bearing on the importance of the work public librarians and social workers can do together, of course. Nevertheless, as I said, I’m someone who feels compelled to look for the commonalities in disparate themes, so I couldn’t help but be forced by my new circumstances to do more investigating of the larger implications of combining social work and librarianship. Paul started to touch on that in his post on Recentering the Public Good, when he made the connection between social work’s core values and librarianship’s bill of rights, but there’s still a lot of work we can do to map and explore those connections.

When we started to put the word out that we were launching this blog, I was contacted by a librarian who recently got her PhD, whose dissertation included some truly groundbreaking work on how librarians and social workers can connect and help each other. She was also thinking about starting a blog with a very practical orientation: examples of what’s happening in the field, where practitioners can go and get immediate ideas for their own work. A website like that is not only valuable but necessary to help this kind of collaboration take root. Talking to her about that, though, made me realize I/we need to be able to explain why we want to go beyond the practical to a create a newly defined philosophical underpinning for librarianship itself. This is a daunting task and not something that is going to happen in this post or any single post, but rather through the accumulation of ideas and examples that, hopefully, will happen here.

When I wrote my piece on the launch of this blog for the SRRT newsletter, I was somewhat surprised to discover I was positioning this collaboration with social work in antithesis to the pervasive influence of business theory and practice in librarianship. I hadn’t quite realized until I sat down to explain myself that I was making that connection—one that Paul elaborated on in his prior post as well. But regardless of whether a social work orientation is the antidote to business, I think the way in which business language and thought has infused librarianship is a good example for how I would like to see social work ethics and ideals permeate our work as well. For example, at the end of MILE we sat down to map out the next year of work with a mentor, and we were instructed to create SMART goals. I jokingly sent Paul a message about doing SMART goals yet again, but really, this is a perfect example of how we use business models and terminology without even thinking about it. This is not to say there’s anything wrong with SMART goals—but I’d like to see us talking about, say, a “person in their environment” approach to reference with the same unthinking ease and acceptance.

To that end, I am naming what we do here “Whole Person Librarianship.” Social workers seek to address each client as a “whole person,” seeing them and their needs in the context of the rest of their life and environment. I believe that librarians do that as well, though we haven’t, to the best of my knowledge, put a name to the concept of doing so intentionally and consistently. What is Whole Person Librarianship? What are its precepts, and how can it guide and influence practice? Much of that will be worked out in the coming weeks and months. To help move this along, Paul and I will be establishing a Zotero library to collect relevant research in social work and librarianship, and we will share it with you. We will also start using the WPL perspective to reply to blog posts by other librarians, to demonstrate (and also work out for ourselves) how this interdisciplinary model can be applied in existing theory and practice. I’m purposely putting this idea out into the world before it’s fully formed in the hope that you will help drive and shape it, so that together we can create something meaningful and lasting.


6 Comments on “Whole Person Librarianship: The Start of a Manifesto”

  1. Paul Lai says:

    I love this idea! Whole person librarianship captures what we have been talking about this last year–thinking of a new perspective for reinfusing librarianship with a sense of commitment to all aspects of patrons’ lives. I also like how you phrased the point about questioning the way librarians seem simply to borrow business language when thinking about how to manage libraries. While the management processes may be similar in for-profit businesses as for libraries in some respects, there is a potential danger of importing the values of private enterprise and erasing some of the more difficult to sustain values of providing information for the public and supporting the public sphere.

  2. Sara Z says:

    Someone made the claim to me in the past week that turning public libraries into computer labs had changed the patron population from “traditional patrons” to those who are visiting from the homeless shelter and such. I’m certain there’s quite a bit to refute that idea in library history and am wondering whether we should 1) touch on that more here, and 2) also show how social work collaboration can be broader than only helping the neediest groups. A continuum of thought?

    • Paul Lai says:

      There does seem to be a perception that libraries have only more recently shifted to serving a different population. There are lots of great studies on the history of public libraries that could probably address the issue. And definitely we should continue to think about how to broaden thinking about librarianship/social work collaboration as more than just about helping the homeless.

  3. […] in providing social services referrals and information. As Sara Z. mentioned in her post, Whole Person Librarianship,” this blog is part of a larger project to rethink the basis of librarianship to foreground concerns […]

  4. […] there is less explicit consideration in librarians’ codes of ethics on relating to patrons as whole persons in their environment. Though the codes of ethics might have nondiscrimination clauses and other comments about […]


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