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).

2 thoughts on “Librarians : Patrons :: Social Workers : Clients (Part 1 of 2)”

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