Social Work MOOC Module 1: What Is Social Work?

This is the first post in a series of reflections on the University of Michigan edX course “Social Work Practice: Advocating Social Justice and Change.”

I was struck very early on in this module by the International Federation of Social Work’s global definition of social work:

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.

What caught my attention was that first sentence: social work is equal parts practice and academic discipline. I’ve been feeling like this is a fundamental gap in the way we do librarianship as compared to other social sciences: our profession as practiced on a day-to-day basis is pretty distant from what most information science researchers are studying, especially in public librarianship. I’m not sure which came first, the disregard by public librarians for academic findings or the academic disinterest in studying practicalities of public service, but the distance only seems to be widening over time.

Regardless of that particular criticism of librarianship, though, I continue to believe and hope we can adopt the practice of applying theories and learning from multiple disciplines and cultures to librarianship. One of the people interviewed in the MOOC called social work “an applied practice where we take lessons learned from other disciplines and apply them to real world problems.” I would really like to see us define librarianship similarly. If you look at the backgrounds of faculty members in iSchools, particularly at the flagship Illinois, you can see that information science is already willing to draw from other specializations with greater interdisciplinary than most academic departments. At the moment, much of that interplay happens with computer science, or sometimes humanities in the case of archives and education in the case of youth services. I hope we can encourage more influence from sociology and social work as we continue to raise the value of knowledge of human behavior as part of our library practice.

I was also curious, based on this concise and helpful definition, whether our own International Federation of Library Associations has a similar definition of librarianship. I wasn’t able to find one but didn’t dig very deep, so I’m interested if anyone else comes across such a thing.

Another item of importance in understanding social work that we’ve touched on previously on this blog is the NASW Social Work Code of Ethics, which is far more extensive than the ALA Code of Ethics. For more analysis and comparison, I refer you to Paul’s posts here and here. Based on my own current experience and priorities, there were a few things that stood out to me in the MOOC’s explanation of social work ethics:

  • SW core value “Importance of Human Relationships”: I’ve recently taken to saying “It’s all about relationships.” This is something I used to hear a lot when I was working with early childhood researchers (including Mary Nienow, my awesome social worker collaborator), and at first I considered it to be overly broad and therefore not terribly meaningful. But over time, as I’ve worked more and more at community engagement and outreach, I’ve come to realize just how fundamental human relationships really are to successful work in that arena. The social worker (professor?) who explained the core values said “relationships are the vehicle for making change and helping people,” and I couldn’t agree more. While the changes and help librarians and social workers want to make differ from each other in significant ways, the methods of initial connection are very similar. This is one of the reasons I believe it’s so important for the success of librarianship going forward that we educate our students as fully on human behavior as we do on, say, Dublin Core.
  • SW core value of “Competence”: What I liked about the explanation of this value was the way it motivates professional development and builds it into the very essence of social work. This relates back somewhat to my earlier support of the definition of social work as both a practice-based profession and an academic discipline. I wish this were as grounded a core value in all types of librarianship.
  • SW core value of “Social Justice”: I almost feel this is a given when coming from me, but I’ll say it anyway. Social justice is already a core value of librarianship. We need to acknowledge and embrace it as such in order to realize our full potential as a profession.
  • Empowerment: The professor in the second core values video talked about empowerment, which isn’t explicitly one of the six named values but is a significant concept. He talked about empowerment through reducing systematic barriers, which is something that progressive librarians already give a lot of thought to. What I appreciate about the social work approach is that it is research-based and situates an understanding of social systems at the core of working with and for other people.

One concept that was new to me in this MOOC was the idea of “mezzo” practice. I’ve written before about micro and macro practice, and I always like to mention them when I’m introducing Whole Person Librarianship to a new audience because I think they’re concepts with immediate applicability to library work. Mezzo practice is, unsurprisingly, situated somewhere between the extremes of micro and macro practice. While in general I believe in the value of de-binarying concepts (a term I just made up!), I’m not sure I find it entirely helpful in this case. One of the attractions of the macro/micro divide is the very simplicity of it, at least at first glance. What I did appreciate was the way the mezzo concept seemed to facilitate discussion of community organizing as a unique practice, and the techniques of community organizing can also be applied to much of the community engagement work done by librarians.

I also heard many of the social workers in the “skills” section talk about the importance of listening closely and carefully. Several of the social workers mentioned listening as a top skill and just as important whether you’re listening to an individual or community. One thing I’ve been cautious about recently is glorifying listening for its own sake. I don’t think social workers are in danger of falling into that trap because they are so motivated by problem-solving, but I do sometimes witness librarians “listening” as though that were inclusion enough on its own. Listening is relatively meaningless unless it’s in service of action, and I think the social workers would agree. A particularly good example is the woman who talked about intentional listening for the purpose of determining a person’s self-interest, then using that self-interest to motivate them as part of community organizing. Responsiveness is key but doesn’t have to happen on a grand scale.

One final thing I wanted to note is the social work emphasis on understanding policy. I think very few people outside of high-level library administration take the time to learn about and make an impact on laws and policies governing librarianship. That’s been changing–I would refer anyone who is interested in getting more involved to check out EveryLibrary.

Overall, the whole time I worked through this module, I kept thinking about how I always make sure to tell librarians that we don’t need to be social workers (and that there are many important skills librarians have that aren’t part of social work). My perspective on that hasn’t changed, but I am developing an ability to parse it out with more subtlety. I expect to talk more about that in future posts.

Let’s learn social work together!

Calling interested librarians: I’m taking this MOOC and invite you to join me:

Social Work Practice: Advocatingg Social Justice and Change

Right now, I anticipate completing one module per week, starting with the first one this weekend. I will then post some reflections here on how the content applies to librarianship. I would love for others to participate here and make this a real conversation about the intersections of librarianship and social work. Even if you don’t complete the modules at the same pace as I do, you can always come back and comment as you work through them.

At the very least, I expect to gain and share some new insights. I look forward to sharing that with you.

WPL at IFLA: Homelessness, Refugees, and Person-in-Context

Last month, I attended the IFLA World Library and Information Congress in Columbus, OH as a U.S. National Fellow. It was a remarkable experience and an opportunity to start thinking about Whole Person Librarianship from a global perspective.

Last year, the IFLA Section for Library Services to People with Special Needs formed a working group to develop guidelines for serving people experiencing homelessness. At the heart of this effort is Sanja Bunic, a public librarian from Croatia, who single-handedly developed her own approach to serving patrons experiencing homelessness and has sustained it with the help of a corps of volunteers. While an interest in library services to patrons experiencing homelessness and the concomitant involvement of social workers has been growing in the U.S. and Canada, it’s not as well-known in other places, making Sanja’s efforts that much more remarkable. You can read about her library and her work in her 2015 IFLA Conference Paper. There was also a full session of papers on services to people experiencing homelessness at this year’s conference.

As co-chair of the IFLA-LSN working group, Sanja invited me to attend their meeting at the conference. The exciting news is that if all goes to plan, there should be draft guidelines for worldwide public review this fall. I will post that here as soon as it’s available. One of the appendices is written by the social worker from Denver Public Library, and many such collaborations will be documented in and contribute to the guidelines. While Whole Person Librarianship may not make it into the report explicitly (I connected with Sanja late in the writing process), my social work collaborator, Mary Nienow, and I will be contributing research resources to support the paper’s content. Sanja was also very taken with the idea of promoting further librarian-social work collaboration, as well as the implications for librarians’ daily practice, and I think she’ll be an important colleague in this work as well continue to expand our reach.

Another conference session related to these efforts was a special afternoon of presentations on public library services to refugees (I’m hoping the papers will eventually be posted at that link, but there’s also a free webinar). Libraries in Europe are currently working with Syrian refugees who are arriving in numbers we’ve never had to face in U.S. public libraries. The services they’re offering, though, are very similar to what we do for patrons experiencing homelessness. They start from the recognition that the library is the one place where refugees have reliable internet access to connect with family members back home. Many of the refugees are living in makeshift housing and use the library as a safe space and source of electricity, and librarians have shifted their perspective on library use to accommodate them. Librarians are also connecting refugees with resources and expanding their language services such as conversation circles.

Even greater than what I learned, though, was my new awareness of just how much I don’t know. I’m comfortable making recommendations for library-social work relationships here, but how would they translate to other cultures where the expectations for libraries or social services may be quite different? IFLA also has truly global representation, and as I met librarians from developing countries, I considered how busy they are just delivering basic services. Not to mention the interest group on LGBTQ support whose meeting I attended: as recently as ten years ago, the WLIC wouldn’t allow promotion of a LGBT social hour in official conference materials, and of course many IFLA members come from countries where being outed (or supporting those who are) could mean ostracism or death. How can we create space in the organization for everyone while recognizing the reality of extreme differences in culture?

This is where I think the concept of person-in-context that we learn from social work is so very important. Understanding social systems and how they influence human behavior means that we know how long and challenging the process of true change can be, while also giving us empathy for each individual based on their place in those systems.

I’ll close with the example I found most meaningful and reflective of this person-in-context perspective at the conference. The newly-formed Indigenous Matters Section presented a powerful session on supporting indigenous cultures from around the world that included a paper from two students at the University of Washington’s MLIS program. They made a number of original and thoughtful recommendations for incorporating indigenous knowledge into LIS curricula. The one that stuck with me was the request that PhD programs reconsider their traditional practice of not hiring their own graduates as faculty; it runs counter to indigenous processes of knowledge transmission, which are based in community. That’s a simple but powerful accommodation that could be made to recognize and respect indigenous people in the full context of their culture.