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.


3 Comments on “Computers, Social Work, and Public Libraries”

  1. Dana Lucisano says:

    Hi, Paul. I read your summary with interest and hope it sparks continued discussion. I plan to follow your blog.

    • Paul Lai says:

      Hi Dana! Thanks for dropping by. Did you end up hearing from folks about their written policies for how to help patrons with computer needs, by the way?

      • Dana Lucisano says:

        No one ever did send me any copies. I think library managers have stayed in the background, letting front-line staff make the tough calls about how to respond to patron need, which is why there aren’t written policies.


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