Conferences, Editorial

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.

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