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.”