Whole Person Librarianship: The Class

Just kidding, sort of… I don’t think I’m going to call it that, but we (I + Paul Lai + Professor Emeritus Mary Wagner) are beginning work on a 1-credit class on the intersection of social work and librarianship for the St. Kate’s MLIS program’s J Term. In preparation, I’ve started adding some things to our Zotero library and welcome comments on and suggested additions to that.

I’m also starting to outline what we might cover in terms of topic areas. It looks like if we have 3-hour evening classes (pretty standard at St. Kate’s), we will need to meet five times, so right now I’m looking at five topics, each with its own guest speaker. These are in no particular order yet, except for the first one:

  1. Introduction to social work principles and evidence-based practice. Guest speaker: someone from the St. Kate’s SW faculty, or my trusty sidekick, Mary Nienow.
  2. Health care and public librarians. This couldn’t be more timely, and now OCLC is starting to come out with training materials, which would mean a rich base of resources for homework and discussion. Possible guest speaker:  a clinical social worker and/or public library manager.
  3. Libraries and the homeless. Although we think of this mostly in terms of public libraries, academic libraries grapple with homeless library users as well. I expect that we’ll focus primarily on public libraries, but this does make me wonder what kind of response other types of libraries have come up with. Possible guest speaker: Amy Mars, librarian who has worked on setting up deposit collections in homeless shelters.
  4. Services for older adults. In the small amount of info collection I’ve done so far, I’ve already seen at least a couple of interesting-looking collaborations around this topic pop up in the literature. Personally, I need to explore this a bit further, but it seems promising. Possible guest speaker: Joyce Yukawa, St. Kate’s MLIS professor with a special interest in this area.
  5. School social workers and literacy. Schools will often have a social worker onsite even when they don’t have a librarian, and I’ve previously written here about some of my thoughts on that. Just seems ready-made for collaboration. Possible guest speaker: the school social worker who brought Little Free Libraries to MNIC.

This is just a start to my own thoughts, without input yet from Paul and Mary, which is coming soon. I’m sure they’d join me in saying we’re open to any suggestions for topics and resources.

I’m hoping this class can build on the session I’m moderating at this fall’s Minnesota Library Association Annual Conference (yes, I’m burying that particular lede all the way down here: we have a session!). “…and Social Justice for All: How Can Librarians and Social Workers Collaborate?” might ask some of the questions that the class will answer more fully. I will, of course, plan to write up the session here, and should the class come to fruition, it will include assignments for students to write for the blog as well. As always, your thoughts are more than welcome every step of the way!


Public Librarians and Health Care: A Social Work Perspective

by Mary Nienow, MSW, Clinical Director and Instructor of Internship, University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire

As I was procrastinating in the writing of this blog entry on what social workers can teach librarians, I received call from a public library asking for my help. With the advent of the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare), low income adults without children can now qualify for medical assistance. The librarian (let’s call her Susan) was wondering if my social work students would be willing to help with outreach and assistance to people filling out the forms. Her comment, “as librarians we can’t necessarily help them fill out the forms and would love the social work department’s help,” really struck a chord. Citing privacy concerns and equating it with offering tax assistance or legal help, Susan indicated that they can only provide the forms now answer questions or assist in the completion of the forms. While I am delighted to foster this partnership, it highlights for me, once again, how interconnected the scope of practice really is between librarians and social workers.

Susan mentioned that there will be on-line courses my students can take so they better understand the forms and what is being asked, but it got me to thinking… what kind of information or skill does a social worker have that could be put into a few short on-line courses for librarians? The first, and probably most difficult thing, is expecting each interaction to take longer than you plan. Each person coming to the library has a story. They are more than their name, age, address, and place of employment (or lack of employment). Social workers take the time to uncover the context of the client’s environment. Taking the time to do this builds trust, which is essential in building a helping relationship. If all you do is focus on getting answers to put on a questionnaire, in as short of a time as possible, you will find the person you are trying to help wary of your intentions. They may become hostile, short with their responses, or too verbose in a way that will only impede your efforts. This is because a power differential may have developed where you are the expert, and the patron is dependent upon what you have to give them. It turns out the client is the expert on their story (or the reasons they seek certain information) and often they want that story heard, acknowledged and appreciated—as we all do. Making assumptions about people, their circumstances, their needs, or their abilities is the best way to misunderstand and ultimately not help those we are seeking to serve.* Remembering our purpose, which I bet is not just to help someone fill out a form or find a book (but rather to help them get health insurance, lead a productive life, or seek knowledge and self-fulfillment), can make the time we spend feel like an investment not an exhaustion of our resources.

After time, social workers become trained listeners. They must breathe through their desire to immediately problem solve, rush to a response or insert their “expert” opinion. Comfort with silence gives room for the person to speak. I often tell my students to count their lag time. Lag time refers to the pause between when one person stops speaking and the other starts. Allowing at least five seconds between asking a question and getting a response is appropriate. In my family we have what I call “negative lag time.” Before I can finish asking my question, they are jumping in with a response. It’s annoying. Giving space to think, collect one’s thoughts and answer in a deliberate manner signals and is usually more productive than trying to rush a conversation or come to a particular solution (or fill out a form).

For more information on the role of libraries and the Affordable Care Act, see: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2013/06/28/health/library-affordable-care-act

*A word of caution. This goes well beyond “cultural competence.” Understanding cultural populations is important, but assuming we know how “they” operate (even if we are a part of the “they”) is dangerous and counterproductive. A term I like more is “cultural humility.” Again, it means being aware that we can’t ever understand all aspects of a particular culture and the only way to learn is through relationship and respectful exploration over time.


Social Work and Academic Libraries

While public libraries are clearly at the forefront of most considerations of the overlap between social work and librarianship, we are also interested in thinking beyond the on-the-ground issues faced by public librarians 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 for the whole person and the public good. We are looking for ways to engage social work mentality in addition to places where librarians interact with social workers. Considering some other sites of contact between librarians and social workers provides more opportunities for thinking about how to shift thinking in librarianship towards the whole person.

One important place where librarians deal with social workers (in training) and with social work information is in academic libraries as liaisons to programs in social work. A quick scan of a few job ads for social work librarians (for example, at UMD and FGCU) suggests that, like many other academic librarian positions, a separate academic degree or background in the subject field (at least an undergraduate major) is often preferred if not required. However, academic library liaison positions rely heavily on library school training to prepare liaisons to provide the specific information needs of their subjects and to be able to work closely with faculty and students in conducting research in their fields.

Here are some questions I have about social work librarians’ jobs:

  • What are some of the information resources that social work librarians deal with in particular? The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) has a small bibliography of information literacy in social work resources. It is also easy to find many pathfinders created by academic librarians for social work resources as well.
  • How do they social work librarians provide information literacy instruction and research help for social work faculty and students?
  • Do social work librarians conduct their own research on the information seeking behavior of social work researchers and social workers? What are some distinctive behaviors and issues?
  • What kind of academic background helps social work librarians engage fully with social work researchers and practitioners?
  • What kind of practical (on the job) background helps social work librarians engage fully with social work researchers and practitioners?
  • It is also worth keeping in mind that accreditation for schools of social work usually include required library resources. For example, Texas State University, San Marcos has a librarian’s report for accreditation online. In what ways, via curriculum planning, can librarians help social work programs achieve their goals?
  • What types of experiences might library students and librarians explore to prepare them for social work librarianship if they do not have academic backgrounds in the field?

Social work librarians in the academic library are in a privileged position to explore the intersection of librarianship and social work since they have both the training and the on-the-job interactions to bring the two worlds together. Furthermore, their backgrounds may allow them to understand more fully how social workers think and practice an engagement with their clients as whole persons.


“I’m not a doctor, so I can’t advise you on that”

If there’s one thing I remember learning in reference class – besides that print reference is complex, and our librarian forebears were amazing to work it – it’s never to give medical advice to patrons. We were all taught to draw a clear line between sharing medical information resources and making recommendations about taking medical action. It’s not something I’ve been called upon to use, but I suspect that will change, because President Obama says so.

In case you’ve been on vacation or were partying too hard at ALA to notice, public librarians received a presidential call to action to help enroll uninsured Americans in soon-to-be-mandated plans. To whit: 17,000 libraries, 7 million citizens, 2 major government agencies (U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services), and a whole list of unknowns. I suspect those unknowns are why I didn’t hear more chatter about it at ALA.* There was some Twitter buzz in advance of the announcement last Sunday, and it was indeed cool that the President made his case to us directly. But at least in the sessions I attended, people continued to be far more worked up about open access, for example, than how we’re going to handle this massive enrollment. In addition, as I trolled the web for fodder for this piece, I had a hell of a time finding librarian blog posts about it. (There has been something in the air, though, as this piece in Public Libraries Online and my own interview with PLA President Carolyn Anthony both made mention of the subject within days of the announcement). Then again, maybe it won’t be so different than the tax season rush that public librarians handle annually with aplomb up front and well-earned grumbling behind the scenes.

Nevertheless, this is a fine example of the disappearing line between public librarianship and social work. A social worker friend of mine sent me the link to the Minnesota Public Radio story on the President’s announcement with the email subject line, “Oh, librarians. I mean social workers. I mean librarians.” Traditionally, a social worker meeting with a client in need of health insurance might offer the very array of options that librarians will be presenting. But a clinical social worker has wider boundaries around the kinds of personal questions they can ask for problem-solving, as opposed to the librarian who has been taught to say, “I can’t advise you, but here’s some information and a computer.” Personally, I hope that as IMLS and CMS work towards October 1, they’ll craft a plan with specifics on how librarians can work around that limitation (some good initial recommendations are available via American Libraries). And like any great endeavor, this offers an opportunity for us to prove our worth on a grand scale or fail spectacularly in the public eye (see the comments on the LIS News blog piece). In the meantime, two weeks from now, we will be offering our own version of a social worker’s advice to librarians on making referrals on this blog, so stay tuned.

* Things I learned at ALA this year: ALA Camp and Battledecks are two very different things (never again!), “let’s not have a space where children can be conceived,” join LLAMA and get a llama finger puppet, and it’s easy to find work in Qatar. YMMV.