An Interview with Carolyn Anthony, PLA President

Last week, I was very fortunate to interview Carolyn Anthony, Director of Skokie Public Library and 2013-2014 President of the Public Library Association, on her perspective on the intersection of librarianship and social work. This is my summary of our conversation.

When Carolyn Anthony started working at the Pratt Library in Baltimore in 1973, she found the remnants of a neighborhood information center. It was part of a network of such centers, all established in inner city neighborhoods following the riots of 1969 and intended to help citizens connect with local resources. She liked the idea of providing local information referral and secured an LSTA grant to bring the neighborhood collection up to date. One thing she believed was that “all the different [information] components should be available in the community, but not necessarily in one location,” so she began to collaborate with the Health and Welfare Council, which included social workers. She discovered, “Social workers had all the information but had trouble keeping it organized and up to date. I said, ‘We can do that!’” Collaborating on the neighborhood collection was the beginning of her work at the nexus of librarianship and social work.

Over time, Anthony has continued to work closely with social workers and other community agencies. “Partnerships should be encouraged, and there’s so much we can accomplish by combining skills,” she says. “They enable us to extend our reach and accomplish a lot more.” In a recent example, Anthony consulted on the development of a combined MLIS/MSW degree at Dominican University in Chicago. She has personal experience with social workers in the public library as well: a few years ago, her assistant head of youth services had an MSW, and they hired a social work student intern for the library. The intern was able to help support development of a new English Language Learning Center, a multi-school-district and library initiative, by building relationships with local immigrant communities. Librarians then followed through on those relationships with programs like “Booking with a Buddy,” which partners Kindergarten and first grade students who don’t have an English speaker at home with a volunteer to read books in English over the summer.

However, Anthony isn’t just interested in offering programming. Like many librarians who have worked closely with social workers or other social science professionals, she has seen that they follow through and measure results in ways that librarians traditionally don’t. Anthony explains, “One of my big initiatives [as PLA President] is a measurement task force and asking them to look at ways of capturing some of these things libraries are doing with digital literacy.” This focus ties into her own recent experience with helping patrons learn more about digital literacy and applying for jobs online during the recent recession. “Patrons would like to know, ‘Can I get some kind of indication that I’ve mastered Word or PPT, or certificate of completion?’” she says. But libraries also need to be able to capture results and show outcomes of the trainings they do.

Among her many other responsibilities, Anthony continues to be interested in helping people connect with health resources, just as she did in her first partnership in Baltimore. “It doesn’t mean we don’t have book discussions and storytime,” she says, “but we need to ask where the library can have an impact right now.” With the implementation of affordable care act, she sees a significant role for libraries in providing information. At her own library, they are working on securing appropriate health information at a simpler language level to share with local Assyrian refugees, in collaboration with a new local family care clinic. Looking to the future of public libraries, Anthony says, we will all need to focus on the person and their community—something we can borrow from social work. “Library capacity can be applied in different ways that we can see even if others can’t,” she says. “We learn from the community, and they learn from us by working together.”

Spectrum of Collaboration

In this post, I’d like to suggest a spectrum of collaboration between librarians and social workers. In addition to addressing why there is a need for librarians to work with social workers and vice versa, we also want to acknowledge that there are a number of ways that this kind of intersection might work to the advantage of all involved. In general, we hope that collaborations can help to break down the silos of practice that are all too common in all professional fields, where people are not looking to others doing similar or intersecting work and therefore often recreating the wheel in coming up with solutions to shared problems. Furthermore, such collaborations, even at a very informal level, should help to increase communications between professionals and thereby strengthen practice of all kinds.

Here, then, in increasing levels of complexity, formality, and commitment (of time, energy, and education), are ways that students and professionals in librarianship and social work might collaborate.

  • Informal conversations between librarians and social workers about our shared work, especially where we might learn from each other about common issues and the people we serve. These conversations might be over coffee or lunch. They might be about a concrete issue or just a general discussion of the work that we do.
  • Events, book groups, or other micro-learning opportunities that bring librarians and social workers together to explore a discrete issue. These opportunities can be ad hoc or more sustained (such as in a regular book group or a series of conversations over the course of a year).
  • Attendance at each other’s professional conferences (librarians going to social work conferences such as for the NSWA or social workers going to library conferences such as with the ALA). Hearing how professionals in an allied field might deal with shared concerns would be useful. Also, conferences provide numerous networking opportunities.
  • Presentations at one’s home professional conference about intersections with the other field. Such presentations would help make others in our own fields aware of the possibilities of collaboration with professionals in the other field. Sara Zettervall will be chairing a panel at the Minnesota Library Association’s fall 2013 conference, for example, on collaborations with social workers.
  • Presentations at each other’s professional conferences. More formal engagements with the ideas and issues of each other’s professional fields would help encourage the type of dialogue necessary to explore intersections productively. (Mary Nienow, who contributed an early post to this blog, will be sharing her perspective as a social work professional on the panel organized by Sara.)
  • For students and faculty… courses that encourage students in librarianship to think about social work and vice versa. These courses would remain geared towards one group of students (such as LIS students) but involve guest speakers and discussions of ideas, methodologies, and approaches from the other profession. Sara and I are currently working on a proposal to create a one-credit course in this model for the LIS program at St. Catherine University and hope to solicit feedback and discussion on the proposal from you all in the near future.
  • Shared courses between MLIS and MSW programs with students from both programs in each class. This more integrated exchange of ideas would also encourage dialogue between students and faculties in different programs. The shared classroom space would encourage further points of contact that could develop into rich, collaborative relationships between professionals in the future.
  • A joint or dual degree program in MLIS and MSW. This more formalized exploration of how librarianship and social work might contribute to a professional identity and practice that synthesizes insights from the two professions is a newer possibility but one that is likely to gain traction in the coming years. We have a couple of upcoming posts engaging with this idea via interviews with the folks who have helped establish such a joint program at Dominican University.

There are likely other models of collaboration, and we would love to hear of them if you have had experience with bridging librarianship and social work.

Computers, Social Work, and Public Libraries

One of the folks we’ve been talking to about this Information + Publics project pointed us to a LinkedIn discussion in the American Library Association group (requires LinkedIn account and access to the ALA group) from about a year ago that touched on the topic. The original question was about how reference librarians should provide patrons with computer help, ranging from basic computer use to filling out byzantine job applications online or other official forms like the FAFSA. In particular, the librarian asking the question was curious about whether other libraries have written policies that detail the extent of help that librarians can provide, especially setting limits in terms of time, type of help, and type of (personal) information they should avoid engaging. Over the course of the robust conversation (70+ comments), many librarians chimed in with their own experiences, solutions, frustrations, and analyses of what issues are really at stake in the current library environment.

At least a few of the librarians made the comment that these situations often bleed over into the realm of social work, where librarians are trying to help patrons access social services. Furthermore, librarians find that they need to interact with patrons in ways that go beyond the reference interview, touching on counseling and other ways of listening and providing advice. The conversation did not end in any grand solutions or conclusions, but there are some great resources shared by various librarians about computer help services they provide in their branches, online tutorials they have found useful as resources for patrons, and suggestions of alternative staffing models for computer assistance.

Only a few of the librarians mentioned that their libraries had active job centers to alleviate some of the issues of reference librarians trying to give ad hoc help with things like online job applications. A number of the librarians, though, noted that local government agencies seemed to be sending people to their local libraries for help with online applications. Certainly, there seems to be a gap here; the move online of many job applications and government forms is leaving people in need of employment and other welfare assistance in an even more complicated situation if they lack computer literacy skills or access to computers and the Internet.

I looked around briefly online and found that the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) , working with the Department of Labor, gives grants to help libraries develop job centers.

Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration (ETA) officially encouraged its state and local workforce investment boards, state workforce agencies, and One-Stop Career Centers to partner with public libraries to extend their career and employment services to job seekers and unemployed workers. The ETA’s(TEN) cements a partnership between the ETA and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) that was announced on June 25, 2010, at the American Library Association annual meeting.

At a national level, at least, it seems that there is a clear mandate to make public libraries a center for providing a kind of computer literacy and career services safety net for people in need. What remains an issue is the lack of resources at many libraries, and these grants can only reach a limited number of libraries each year.

The IMLS and groups like OCLC (with Project Compass, a program that studied how libraries might deal with the recent economic downtown and employment issues) are committed to engaging librarians in the work of remaking libraries into an extension of other social service agencies that provide employment assistance. The issue, as it often is, remains one of funding and other resources like training for librarians. It would be interesting to see if any of the grant funded programs have looked actively at collaborations between librarians and social workers in running job assistance centers.

A Review of “NHS and Social Care Interface”: Information Literacy for Social Workers

One of the things we would like to do through this blog is to collect bibliographies of research related to the intersection of social work and librarianship. We will also provide brief reviews of some of these articles to serve as starting points for considering the issues that arise in these two fields concerning social and information services.

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) has a wiki page on Information Literacy in Social Work that is a starting point for some of this literature review. We encourage people to contribute to that wiki page to expand the list of resources. ACRL is the professional organization for academic librarians who often serve in subject liaison positions to particular disciplines and fields, developing information and reference expertise to help researchers and students in these subjects. There are a number of schools with social work libraries and reference librarians who specialize in helping social work researchers. One of the charges of academic librarians is to teach information literacy, and as such, social work librarians must understand the specific information needs of social workers, the available information resources, and the information-seeking behavior of social workers (and social work researchers–who may be an entirely distinct set of people, as noted by the article I discuss below).

Harrison, J., Hepworth, M., & de Chazal, P. (2004). NHS and social care interface: A study of social workers’ library and information needs. Journal of Librarianship and Information, 36(1), 27-35. doi:10.1177/09610006040429712004

Harrison, Hepworth, and de Chazal’s (2004) “NHS and Social Care Interface: A Study of Social Workers’ Library and Information Needs” is one of the few articles that seems to address social workers’ information needs from a library and information science perspective (or at least using the language of LIS research), and the researchers all come from the LIS profession. The usefulness of a LIS perspective for such questions is the training that LIS researchers have on the infrastructures of information and on understanding how information circulates between people.

Harrison et al.’s article is a decade old now and focuses on a United Kingdom context. (As a side note, my unscientific searches of Twitter for tweets about social work and social workers seemed to retrieve mostly UK tweeters, and I wonder if there is a difference between how social workers in the US and the UK use social media….) Some of their findings are likely no longer current as the information landscape, particularly with computers and Internet communications, has shifted so dramatically in the last decade. Still, it would be interesting to see if there is follow-up research or related studies more recently that might show what has changed for social workers’ information needs in the UK.

Using questionnaires, focus groups, and semi-structured interviews, Harrison et al. gathered data from social workers working in a university hospital setting (generally in multi-disciplinary teams) about how they accessed information to conduct their daily work. The researchers found that social workers depended primarily on a verbal culture, asking colleagues and managers for information and help rather than consulting published information resources (either in paper or electronic). Many of the findings were rooted in social workers’ continued dependence, at the time of the study before 2004, on print publications such as the professional journal Community Care and lack of use of computers and Internet sources. Some respondents noted a desire to use computers more frequently (but were not provided computers at work) and other respondents expressed discomfort or fear of having to learn to use computers (technostress), which they also figured would inevitably involve assuming the secretarial aspects of their work themselves when they are already overwhelmed with work. Finally, Harrison et al. noted that social workers were by and large not consulting current research in the field, neither reading scholarly journals regularly nor looking for specific types of research to guide their practice.

Harrison et al. concluded that many of the problems they identified could best be solved by providing social workers better access to library services and helping them developing stronger relationships with librarians/information specialists. The researchers noted that though the university hospital setting provided well-resourced libraries, social workers often did not have access to them or were not encouraged to use them as much as the medical staff were. They noted that social workers are professionals whose work with people, like the work of medical care staff, is structured by laws and policies governing proper care of the ill and the poor, and thus social workers need to be able to find such information. Furthermore, social workers need these library services to connect them to current research in order to enact evidence-based practices (an important concept in medical care). Working with librarians would allow social workers to find these information resources and alleviate the concerns they have of information overload and lack of time to find publications on their own.

This article identifies one way that librarians/information specialists can work in medical and social services contexts outside of traditional libraries. The authors also help to explain what expertise LIS professionals have in understanding information needs, information-seeking behavior, and other issues concerning knowledge and communication in workplaces. As much as we at this blog are interested in exploring how social workers might help librarians in the public library context to do their work better, we also want to examine how librarians working on other contexts might help social workers do their jobs better as well.

* You can also find the article on Mark Hepworth’s profile.

Little Free Libraries and Collaborative Engagement

I was reminded this weekend that Little Free Libraries are still growing in popularity, when (not for the first time) someone suggested to me that I might build one at some point. They seem to be especially numerous here in the Twin Cities–not surprising, given that they’re based in the Upper Midwest. In just one example, last year, the Mall of America gave away 20 LFLs in Minnesota and Wisconsin. One of their recipients was a local charter high school, the Minnesota Internship Center (MNIC), where I’d done some work to promote public library services. But I wasn’t the person who secured and managed the LFLs for them–that person was their social worker.

Those of us who are interested in library outreach are becoming ever more aware of the network of social workers running through the special populations we want to engage. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a moment to consider that when we think of reaching out to and interacting with every potential patron, it’s likely that a social worker is already in place where we want to be. As I mentioned before, I partnered with a social worker to lead a YA book club at a Minneapolis community center last summer, but what I don’t think I mentioned about the community center is that it’s a hotbed of social work activity. While it may be relatively rare to meet a librarian in the building, they have at least one full time social worker on-site, and many local social work students do their supervised work there. Similarly, MNIC worked on a shoestring budget that will likely never accommodate hiring a librarian (I was there as a student), but they do have a full-time social worker.

One thing I grappled with while at MNIC was how to offer basic library services to some very at-risk students. (I have to acknowledge here that the teen librarians in our local public libraries are very good but were too pressed for time to provide regular, sustained, in-school contact–and whether they even should have the time to pick up the slack for schools without libraries is debatable.) I ended up testing out adding a module on public library services to the training that MNIC’s volunteer tutors received, in the hope that, during their repeated contact and relationship-building with students, they would be able to reinforce library use. It was a pilot that I didn’t get to spend a lot of time on, and I still hope I or someone else will pick it up and run with it–and I can see a connection to be made here. What if public librarians were to train the social workers who are already embedded in the systems we want to reach, so that they would know how to make appropriate information referrals? And what if they trained us, so that we would know how to and when to partner with them on the personal challenges our patrons face that are beyond the scope of what we can do as librarians?

MNIC’s social worker didn’t simply accept the MOA’s donation of Little Free Libraries and books to fill them; she actively engaged the school’s students in maintaining the libraries, both as physical structures and in selecting the books to fill them. LFLs may turn out to be just a trend (and I am aware there’s some debate about whether they reinforce the notion that library = books), but sometimes the excitement over a trend is a great tool to bring people together. In this case, a LFL takes minimal investment, and it gives the social worker a means of connecting with students. If a library, rather than a corporation, provided the LFL and weeded books to fill it, that would be one low-cost way to start to interact with the community and new colleagues around a shared love of books. The hard work of educating and sharing resources would still have to follow but could do so more easily after a fun project as the icebreaker.