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.

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