“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.

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