Ask WPL: How can I find a library practicum that incorporates social work?

Tania says: I wanted to ask if you have any advice for finding library practicums that embrace WPL. I am a library student with previous experience as a case manager at a not-for-profit mental health organization. I am having difficulty finding library practicums combine librarianship and social work.

The thing about library-social work collaboration is that in its latest form, it’s still a pretty new idea. While some libraries are bringing in social work interns because they recognize the need for that kind of help, it’s less common anywhere to take the next conceptual step and combine librarianship and social work into one role. So, it’s not surprising that you’re not finding a lot of options. But, I still think there’s a lot of possibility out there if you expand the frame you use for WPL.

Even if potential supervisors do not, you know what special skills you’re bringing from your social work background. Are there particular populations you’ve worked with more than others? You might start by looking for internships in areas that serve more people like the ones you have special expertise in working with. A common example would patrons experiencing homelessness: if you’re interested in working with that population, you could look for a practicum in an urban library that would give you plenty of public service time. That’s just an example – if you’ve worked with particular age groups or immigrant populations, you could take a similar approach to looking for a high-touch position where those folks are located.

Similarly, you may want to look more generally for positions that focus on outreach and/or community engagement, or seek out an internship at a library that does a lot of community-based work. Again, this might require using your own expertise to suss out the possibilities inherent in the internship. I’m thinking of a neighborhood library I work at – we could describe a practicum here in such a way that it might look like it’s only covering the basics of library work, but because I know the library and the diverse patrons who come here, I can also see how someone with a social work background could contribute something to the team and to our approach to service.

The second piece of the puzzle is working with a creative and innovative librarian. My practicum wasn’t something that was posted or offered to me – I made it happen by approaching a librarian I wanted to work with. Even if you don’t find someone who latches onto your social work background right away, a supervising librarian who is open to experimentation and new ideas can help you create a space for bringing in your own version of a WPL approach.

One you have the right location and supervisor, you can take some responsibility for utilizing your social work background in that position. Think of it as an opportunity for you to educate others as well as an opportunity for you to learn on the job. If the people you’re working with see your social work expertise in action, and they see how it makes you shine as a librarian, that’s a profound way to help spread awareness. Another great thing is that a practicum – as opposed to a less structured internship – should give you the opportunity to reflect on your experiences. Take advantage of that and focus any surrounding research and writing you may be doing on the aspects of WPL that you see as relevant while you’re learning your new position. You could even share your results here, if you want!

I hope that’s helpful, and I’d welcome further questions and comments. Also, if someone in the Chicago area happens to be reading this who might have an opportunity for this particular student, please email me, and I can put you in touch.

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