Articles and Reviews

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.

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