Information Literacy Needs of Social Work Students

Before I dive into a brief review of a few articles published by academic librarians about the information literacy needs of social work students, I wanted to remind everyone that Sara Zettervall will be leading a session, “…And Social Justice for All: How Can Librarians and Social Workers Collaborate?,” at the upcoming Minnesota Library Association conference. The session is Thursday morning, October 10, 2013, from 10-11am. Hope to see you there!

In an earlier post “Social Work and Academic Libraries,” I asked some questions about what academic librarians whose subject areas include social work might do to help social work students, faculty, and practitioners find necessary information for work in the field. I quickly did a search in the library literature for studies on social work and information literacy instruction and found a few articles that offer some useful points. Of note is that each of these studies focuses just on one program at the authors’ own institutions and thus are not meant to provide generalizable results. However, each of the articles suggests particular trends in the field of social work education and practice that are evident at the individual institutions. Here, in no particular order, are some of observations from the articles:

  • The rapid growth of information technologies has transformed the way social workers must do research in their jobs and created a rift in experience and expertise for finding accurate and up-to-date information.
  • Graduate students in MSW programs are (at least in the studied institutions) mainly nontraditional students, sharing a few characteristics such as having taken time off academic study, being older and thus having learned to conduct research before the information technology revolution, and pursuing their degrees part-time while holding down jobs and raising families. These characteristics structure the way the students understand library and information resources as well as how they can access them. Concerns not typical for traditional students (coming directly from college with no break in education and going to school full time without family responsibilities) might include need for child care to use the library, lack of computer literacy, and less time to conduct library research.
  • Students in general tend to overestimate their abilities to find published research although social work students, in at least one study, were less confident in their abilities than other graduate students.
  • Key elements of information literacy that social work students tend not to have any background in include knowledge of research and publication cycles, understanding of different databases and their difference from library catalogs as well as general Internet searches, and facility with different search interfaces.
  • There are different models for implementing information literacy instruction but having that instruction woven into the curriculum of the graduate program with support and participation from faculty is crucial to its success.

These articles did not necessarily discuss discipline-specific information needs aside from noting that social work databases and those of related disciplines. The articles did, however, note that social work as a practice-based field has a high need for evidence-based decisions, and social workers need to be able to stay on top of the changing information landscape once they receive their MSW and move into their careers full time.

Here are the citations for the articles:

Bellard, E. M. (2005). Information literacy needs of nontraditional graduate students in social work. Research Strategies, 20(4), 494–505. doi:10.1016/j.resstr.2006.12.019

Brustman, M. J., & Bernnard, D. (2007). Information literacy for social workers: University of Albany Libraries prepare MSW students for research and practice. Communications in Information Literacy, 1(2), 89–101.

Ismail, L. (2010). Revelations of an off-campus user group: Library use and needs of faculty and students at a satellite graduate social work program. Journal of Library Administration, 50(5–6), 712–736. doi:10.1080/01930826.2010.488957



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