Blurred Lines, the Digital Divide, and the Question of Control

This post has nothing to do with Robin Thicke.

With that out of the way, I just finished “Librarian or Social Worker: Time to Look at the Blurring Line?” by Rachael Cathcart.* Published in 2008, it anticipates the current call for public librarians to facilitate health care sign-ups. Cathcart focuses on e-government, stating,

Services for which e-government… is most frequently in demand include immigration applications, tax forms, medical insurance claims, disaster recovery assistance, Department of Children and Families forms, and job applications. Helping people in these areas is a whole new responsibility for public librarians. (88)

And she recognizes that this represents “an implicit blurring of the line between librarian and social worker” (88). At this point, looking back, it’s fairly simple to trace the steps that led to the more explicit blurred lines of the health care assistance mandate, and Cathcart recognizes these as well. As the government began to save money by putting services online that required universal access, users without internet access at home increasingly heard the the refrain of “visit your public library for help.” Public libraries have been crucial and visible leaders in assisting users who fall on the have-not side of the digital divide, and in that respect, the President’s call for librarians to help register users for health care is a victory in high-level perception of the role of librarians in public, digital access to resources.

I recently spoke to a long-time public librarian who felt forced into the role of assisting homeless and mentally ill patrons, and while he seems to represent the minority, his opinion does raise the question of whether we have been in control as we veer nearer to social work. Many of us embrace the opportunity to help all of our patrons, and in particular this blog seeks to present a model of critical thinking and leadership that will help us do a better job of that. But did we, as a profession, knowingly choose the path to this point? To a great extent, what I see is that we’ve adapted–sometimes successfully and enthusiastically, but reactively–to the changes we have faced.

When I sat down recently with my co-leads for the upcoming conference session (a summary of which will be reported here in two weeks), a question we all had, and which we intend to ask our participants, is where we can fill in that blurred line between social workers and librarians. We probably won’t find a complete answer in our hour of discussion, but the more we define that line, the greater control we as librarians can take over our professional destiny. The digital divide will continue to bring patrons to our doors who need technical assistance and can’t get it anywhere else, and it we’re lucky, policymakers will continue to see our public libraries as home bases for that kind of help. But we, in our professional confidence, can and should be the ones to know and say how we help people with empathy and confidentiality, and when and where we point them for more in-depth assistance. The closer we come to being social workers ourselves, the more we need to know about our place along that blurred line.

* Cathcart, R. (2008). Librarian or Social Worker: Time to Look at the Blurring Line? Reference Librarian 49(1): 87-91. This has also been added to our Zotero library.


Librarians : Patrons :: Social Workers : Clients (Part 2 of 2)

Last week, I suggested that turning to a model of how social workers interact with clients might be useful for librarians who work with homeless patrons. In a related post today, I want to continue thinking about how looking to the relationship between social workers and their clients might reinforce particular values already important in librarians’ relationships with patrons. This type of thinking is less about transforming understandings of librarianship than it is about highlighting the values of care for individuals and the development of complex relationships with people and communities that are already inherent in the way most librarians think of their work. In particular, I want to foreground how social workers work deliberately to establish trust and strong relationships by focusing on confidentiality.

The idea of confidentiality in a professional relationship is central to many professions where personal, health, educational, and other types of information form the basis of the work relationship. For example, doctors and patients have a relationship structured by the confidentiality of patients’ personal information and health conditions, something protected in the legal realms as privilege. Many other professions rely on the confidentiality of information as well, and a large subset of these professions also have legal privilege in protecting that confidentiality (including psychologists and many social workers). Librarians, however, are generally not considered in that subset of professionals whose working relationship with patrons is privileged in legal courts though there are certainly many librarians who advocate strongly for extending that privilege to reference encounters. (See for example Austin’s [2004] article on the topic.)

My reference class certainly focused on the idea of confidentiality in the reference interview encounter, and it is clear that protecting the privacy of individuals and their personal information is at the heart of librarians’ conceptions of reference work. This confidentiality is important if patrons are to feel comfortable asking for information or for help in locating certain types of information. The limit cases that often come up have to do with sensitive topics such as information on sex or sexuality. However, it is worth keeping in mind that what may seem a trivial topic to one person may be of utmost importance and delicacy for someone else, so in effect, librarians should think of all information requests as potentially sensitive. In any case, reference librarians must consider how to interact with patrons in ways that foster a sense of trust. Instead of foregrounding values of efficiency (how quickly can librarians provide needed information and just what is requested?), librarians might focus on how to work with patrons in ways that fully respond to their information needs, whether those patrons know how to ask for that information or not.


Librarians : Patrons :: Social Workers : Clients (Part 1 of 2)

I’ve been thinking about the models or theories librarians turn to when they work with patrons. In a series of two posts, I’d like to consider how librarians might turn to social workers’ relationships with clients to reimagine the librarian-to-patron relationship. This first post focuses on the highly visible topic of homeless patrons and how librarians might work with them. The second post will focus on confidentiality in the relationship between reference librarians and patrons.

As I mentioned in an earlier post on the codes of ethics in librarianship, it is interesting to consider the differences between what librarians value as ethical, professional behavior versus what social workers value. While librarians champion patrons’ privacy, access to information resources, and intellectual freedom, there is less explicit consideration in librarians’ codes of ethics on relating to patrons as whole persons in their environment. Though the codes of ethics might have nondiscrimination clauses and other comments about protecting patrons’ access to resources regardless of their gender, ethnicity, national origin, sexuality, or different physical abilities, there is less discussion about how to connect with patrons as people and how to relate to them in person-to-person encounters.

There is much to be explored with how librarians interact with patrons in general, but I want to focus a bit in this post on how librarians connect with (or don’t connect with) homeless patrons since this topic often shows up in media news stories and since homeless patrons are often a substantial and visible presence in public libraries. The central issues that seem to arise in many discussions of homeless persons in libraries are (a) how to understand their needs, (b) what resources libraries can provide them, and (c) how librarians can talk to them to establish a trusting relationship.

Reading through the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics provides some suggestions for how to think about librarians’ relationships with homeless patrons beyond the core values of librarianship regarding information and patrons’ privacy. The NASW Code of Ethics foregrounds the dignity and worth of the person as well as the importance of human relationships. From what I can see, the training social workers undergo in their master’s degree programs and jobs center on developing skills to be able to form strong relationships with their clients and to establish a sense of caring and trust. What if library students and librarians similarly focused on developing these interpersonal skills?

In the stories I have heard about librarians who work with homeless patrons, this issue of building a relationship is often the difficult part–not so much identifying what information resources might be most useful for them. There is a whole range of factors that could keep librarians from being able to establish a relationship with patrons, not the least of which is the very ephemeral nature of librarians’ interactions with patrons generally, which contrasts starkly with social workers’ much more intense and involved interactions with clients. Another factor is the impulse to see homeless people as “problem patrons” (see Kelleher article linked below, which generally forecloses a trusting relationship.

We’ll certainly be returning repeatedly to this issue of librarians’ work with homeless patrons on this blog, but I just wanted to mention it in this post as one defining case where librarians should think carefully about developing relationships with patrons in more nuanced ways, drawing perhaps on the values and skills of social workers. As I was skimming some academic articles on librarians and homeless patrons, I came across an issue of Library Review that contains a handful of articles about libraries and homeless patrons in different international contexts. The articles seem to have been presented at an IFLA session and form an interesting series of discussions about what homeless patrons think of libraries, what resources libraries can provide, and how to relate to empower the poor with information. For example, take a look at Angie Kelleher’s “Not just a place to sleep: homeless perspectives on libraries in central Michigan,” Library Review, Vol. 62, No. 1/2, 2013, pp. 19-33, doi:10.1108/00242531311328122.

Note: The title of this post is in the form of the Miller Analogies Test, something some people may recognize from its use in various standardized tests such as the MAT and SAT (though the SATs got rid of the section with analogies a number of years ago).


A Report from the Trenches

The university library where I currently work is embedded in a neighborhood with a significant Somali immigrant population–the same neighborhood, in fact, where Mary and I held the book club last year. This neighborhood, Cedar-Riverside, is fairly close to two public libraries, but there isn’t one within safe walking distance, so there has been a history of negotiation as local teens come to use the university library after school. I can’t speak to that whole history or even really how it stands right now except to say that I’ve stepped into the middle of something and am learning how complicated community outreach can be when not everyone agrees on how it should be done. Coming from something of a public library background, my unchecked attitude is that of course we should reach out to the local community. But that’s not the mission, generally speaking, of an academic library. Nevertheless, as a public, land-grant university, we have a special obligation to be open to the citizens of the state of Minnesota, regardless of whether they are students. How can we be good neighbors while maintaining the boundaries of what we can and can’t offer? This is what I’m trying to figure out.

One of our neighbors on campus is the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and some of their work overlaps with the concerns of macro social workers in shaping policy for social justice. Last year, students from one of their programs completed a service learning project in Cedar-Riverside that focused on the community’s desire for a library space, but neither the university nor the public library seems to have been directly involved. Meanwhile, I have been working on bringing the public library’s Somali community outreach liaison to the university to train our staff on Somali culture, and a librarian who works in the same library as I do received a Muslim Journeys grant and is hosting an event in collaboration with the local Somali community. And if that sounds confusing from our end, imagine how it must seem to the people in the community, who have no way of understanding the inner workings of the university and how/whether we are communicating with each other before we communicate with them.

One thing that social workers take very seriously, and that I have been keeping at the forefront of my mind as I try to sort through the many strands of our community connections, is the primacy of the perspective of the client. However good our intentions, if we’re not clearly meeting the needs of the people we serve, we need to adjust our approach. For me, the people I serve are the librarians who work at the university, moreso than the local community. As interested as I am in making sure our neighbors feel welcome in our library, a major part of that is convincing, or at least reaching a detente with, skeptical staff members who may have been burned out by previous interactions, or who simply take the approach that the community outside the university is none of their concern. 

What I find myself coming back to is the great service librarians can do in organizing information. For the librarians and front-line staff, a set of local resources to which they can refer community members might be valuable. Similarly, community members in the library could at least be pointed towards where they can find assistance, if not with us. That particular effort may not be mine to complete–I’m learning the boundaries of my own job as well–but what I hope I can facilitate is a growing awareness of and communication about how the our local community engagement efforts fit together.


Happy Labor Day Weekend

We’re off for the holiday, along with all your favorite librarians.