Ask WPL: Social Work Interns and Patron Privacy

Heather asks: My questions/comments are about the balance between a patron’s expectation of privacy vs. making them aware of available services. We have social work interns at my library a few days a week, for a few hours at a time. They have made connections with some of our regular patrons, either because library staff told the patrons about the intern or because the intern approached the patron directly, but they spend a lot of their time sitting/waiting/walking around/observing. What, in your opinion, is the best, practical approach for making the interns visible and patrons aware of this service (which is only available a fraction of the hours we are open)? Thank you.

This is a great question, and I’m sure it’s a real learning opportunity for the interns about how to approach clients as well as a challenge for you. The good news is there are some practical examples out there of how your interns can expand their reach while still respecting patron boundaries.

Ask your interns to build relationships with patrons broadly, rather than focusing attention on those who are readily identified as being in need. This fosters holistic understanding and trust, so that patrons who might not have a service need at the moment will feel safe to ask for help in the future, or patrons who aren’t readily identifiable as being in crisis become comfortable with talking about it. You and your interns can create intentional, social spaces to foster these interactions. One great example that has been successfully replicated elsewhere is Dallas Public Library’s “Coffee and Conversations,” which brings patrons and staff together around coffee and questions or activities that foster discussion. This regularly scheduled time together was designed to reach patrons experiencing homelessness but was not publicly framed as such, so everyone is welcome. It has the added benefit of giving other library staff an opportunity to have positive interactions with patrons on equal ground, which they might not get to have while at the desk or enforcing rules.

Create announcements or promotional materials that are directed to all patrons. This frees you from the burden of trying to identify people to approach and also helps the patrons feel like they’re not in a “special” group for participating. At Minneapolis Central Library, an announcement is “pushed” to all active computer stations when service providers are in the building, inviting patrons to come and visit with them in their designated space. This could also be accomplished through a PA announcement or posted flyers that use the same design as any other materials you put out about services and programs in the library.

Experiment with “office hours” in addition to free-range time. This actually isn’t all that different than some of what’s been mentioned above, but it’s worth pointing out. If you give your interns a designated space and time slot in the library and then promote it, that can attract a different sort of clientele (i.e., patrons who may feel more shy) than those who are willing to engage in conversation on the floor. Your interns could raise initial awareness of their “office hours” by scheduling a services fair at that time, bringing in representatives from local social service agencies. Depending on your patron audience, this could be passive (allowing patrons to walk up and talk to the service providers), or it could be more of a general-education program where members of the community learn about the diversity of needs around them and the good work that’s being done to address those needs.

No matter how you decide to proceed, it’s important to recognize that all relationship-building takes time. One way for your interns to move forward and feel productive regardless of whether they’ve met a “tangible” goal each day is to take some time for reflective practice at the end of the shift and/or end of the work week. I saw the success of this first hand when I recently got to observe the Health and Safety Associates (outreach workers) at San Francisco Public Library. When I asked them how they decide to approach people, they had some obvious flags (waking up sleeping patrons seems to be a good way to start a conversation, if done with care), but mostly they said they learned through trial and error of starting conversations. What makes this “feel it out” method successful for them is the structured support provided by their supervisor, the library’s social worker. They have time set aside at the end of each shift to debrief and reflect on what they’ve experienced that day. This makes them feel supported, helps them to let go of anything difficult they encountered during the shift, and turns challenges or mistakes into positive learning opportunities. The HASAs told me how grateful they are for the support they get. If you don’t already have this in place, intentional time for your interns to talk through their work, whether with a library supervisor or their internship field supervisor, could create a safety net that enables the intern to take more risks and learn from them.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful and would love to hear from you and anyone else with further comments and questions below.

My library wants a social work intern! How do I make that happen?

by Mary Nienow

Libraries are great places to host a social work intern. Because these are public spaces, librarians are faced with many of the challenges that come from being a place where people with numerous complexities in their lives come to for safety, warmth, connection, and information. Social workers use libraries to hold support groups and educational workshops, and to help clients access resources they need to live healthy and productive lives. Community social workers and/or a social work intern on-site is a growing trend in libraries across the country and the world. If you are considering a social work intern at your library, here are a few things to know and do.

Students completing a degree in social work are either seeking their Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree or their Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Schools offering these degrees are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, which requires an intensive internship prior to graduation. The minimum number of hours required at the BSW level are 400 hours and at the MSW level 900 hours. Many programs require more hours and vary in the amount of time students have to complete these hours  anywhere between one semester to two years. Libraries may consider partnering with a local social service provider to co-host the intern, both for community relationship-building and to help diversify and fill the student’s requirements.

In order to successfully complete their internship, students must demonstrate competency in a number of areas:

  1. Demonstrate ethical and professional behavior
  2. Engage diversity and difference in practice
  3. Advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice
  4. Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice
  5. Engage in policy practice
  6. Engage with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities
  7. Assess individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities
  8. Intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities
  9. Evaluate practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities

We hope to provide examples of how social work interns can fulfill these competencies in libraries in a future post and would love to hear from you with examples.

To get started:

Contact the social work department of your local colleges or universities and ask to speak with the Internship Director (aka Internship Coordinator, Field Director).

Explain your vision of how a social work internship in the library would help a student social worker gain experience and competency in the above areas and how it would help your library better serve the patrons and community in which you are situated.

Ask the Internship Director what process you would need to go through to become an approved agency that can accept social work interns. One thing to take into consideration is that social work interns are required to have a licensed social work field supervisor, and the Director can help you navigate that.

Collaborate to develop a plan that is empowering for the intern and will allow the library-school partnership to flourish and continue into the future.

What other questions do you have about this process? Do you have examples of successful social work internships your libraries? Please share in the comments.

ALA 2015 Follow-up and Thanks!

Thanks to everyone who came to our conversation starter at ALA! We estimate 60-70 people in the audience, which was great. Mary and I were so glad to get to know and talk with so many of you. One of the most actionable items to come out of that conversation is connecting libraries with social work interns, so we’re working on a “how-to” post about that.

In the meantime, note that we have a new “Ask WPL” page (linked upper right) where you can send us questions, comments, and blog post ideas. There seems to be a hunger for further conversation about this topic, so we could very easily have some blog posts dedicated to discussion, or if people would rather talk through an email list, we could look into setting that up.

I also did a write-up of the session for Cognotes, but if it gets published, it will be in the conference wrap-up issue, which doesn’t yet seem to be online. So, I’m hoping I’m not violating any copyright by sharing the draft with you here. I’m also attaching the PPTs from the session.

Thanks again, and whether it’s here or somewhere else, we hope you’ll keep the conversation going!

Cognotes Conversation Starter on Librarianship and Social Work (PDF)

Social Justice for All ALA final (PDF of PPT)