Putting the Social in Social Science

Within the last couple of weeks, I’ve done an informal survey of LIS faculty interests across our most reputable PhD programs, based on how they present themselves in online profiles. To summarize my impression: virtually everyone outside of youth services  (and to some extent archives, but that has always been its own world) is focused on the information science part of “library and information science”: informatics, human-computer interaction, information technology policy, data management. This isn’t really a surprise, I suppose, but seeing it written out so starkly in descriptions of faculty interests has really driven home what I’ve also observed in my workplace. We consolidate, organize, manage, and disseminate information of all types; increasingly, we also participate in the generation of the information we then curate (publishing open-access electronic textbooks, for example). Librarianship is pinpointing its focus on information provision.

I don’t oppose information scientists in managing big data, helping faculty members make fair use decisions about copyright, or working as researchers to understand the way people decide how to word their Google searches. I’m happy for people to be studying and working on those things, but I’m happy about it in the same way that I’m happy my brother gets to design large engines, which is to say, keep up the good work, folks, but there’s no need invite me to join you. What troubles me is not the focus on information, but rather that it increasingly seems to be the only focus. Personally, I was attracted to librarianship not because I love information itself but because I love to help people harvest what they need from that well-tended field of information. That human focus is what I miss so much in our professional trajectory towards information science and is one of the things I am striving to restore to significance through the application of Whole Person Librarianship.

To give one example, my place of employment recently invited a couple of research library to speak to staff about the history and future of academic research libraries. When the historian spoke about the development of modern American librarianship during the latter part of the 19th century, he focused on the Dewey decimal system and card catalogs – how librarians took inspiration from the Victorian scientific ideal of exerting control over the world through documentation and indexing. That’s a valid and insightful connection, but I had a another track running in my mind, in which librarians were part of a simultaneous social movement to open up and a free world of knowledge to people of all backgrounds – and what’s more, to facilitate the connection between people and knowledge. There were undoubtedly aspects of that movement which would seem problematic to us now – the idea, for example, that some books are “good for you,” while other books aren’t – but the it was part of a larger trend of social justice and expanding democracy that also blossomed into social work. I want the legacy of that to be acknowledged, respected, and valued equally to the legacy of the card catalog.

At the same time, though, I’ve been wondering if I’ve picked the wrong side and am fired up to fight a battle that’s already been lost. I tried to suggest to someone yesterday that public librarians, in a future where books and articles are all accessed through a central database, could still have a vital role in being the connection between people and that distant information source. Her response was that such a role would be considered “less than,” and public libraries would no longer be able to continue to justify funding their existence. She pointed out that public libraries will be fine as long as people keep checking out stacks of 30 picture books, but what happens when that stops? This was someone whose opinion I respect a great deal, and her response poured a bucket of cold water over me.

But let’s think about this for a moment: parents and caregivers do come into the library to check out stacks of picture books, that’s true. But they also come for all the fantastic literacy programming that youth services librarians put together. Where can you find the most creative outreach programs in the public library? Youth services. Where are our faculty still focused on studying how to reach and educate people, giving consideration to their developmental and social needs at least as much as the format of the information they use (aka, considering the whole person)? Youth services. So why aren’t we looking to that model for success? Why is programming and the human focus “less than”?

I would suggest that our professional dismissal of the human focus is due at least in part to neglecting our place as a social science, alongside social work and education. There are methodologies for evaluating and measuring the impact of services that we could apply more broadly in our research and practice to begin to put the human focus on par with the information focus in librarianship. When I’ve asked about, for example, measuring the impact of prison library services on the literacy rates of inmates, I’ve heard about why that’s a very difficult thing to do. But I don’t know that we, collectively, have yet tried everything we can do and supported each other in making in-depth, social science-based research happen. I don’t know that we have pushed hard enough and far enough to say what’s too difficult for us to accomplish. In the meantime, the vacuum that was left by the death of traditional reference services is being filled by the expansion of information management, and where that’s lacking, by business models that codify the dumbing-down of our public services.

So, going forward, if I ever do seem to be the enemy of the information focus, it’s because I feel the human focus – consultation, public services, programming, outreach – needs strong advocacy to reach parity. Whole Person Librarianship is a catchy name for this messy yet necessary rallying point: Librarianship is a social science, so let’s put the social back into it.

“I’m not a social worker, but I know how to find you one.”

Coming out of a very successful session at this year’s Minnesota Library Association conference, that’s the statement we’d like every librarian to feel confident to make to patrons. But how do we reach that end? Our full session room – 40 people – held an intense discussion on the intersection of librarianship and social work that was only the beginning of our work on Whole Person Librarianship. That work continues here as we continue to build this site as a shareable resource, and – news flash! – it will also continue as a 1-credit January (J-term) class at St. Kate’s. One of many great things about this is that J-term classes have the dual intent of serving as for-credit classes for students and as lower-fee audit options for professional development for practitioners. This class will be an opportunity to delve into the questions raised by our session and begin to build an infrastructure for continued education that can be replicated in other situations, e.g. your own library system.

Session notes (notes by Mary Nienow; additional comments are my own):

  • Reminders of social norms
  • Social control vs. social service
  • Libraries as a safe space
  • Mental health issues – social behavior
  • Outreach to patrons – help with behaviors
  • Social services for non-English patrons
  • Safe space policies in the library

We talked a good deal about challenging behaviors by patrons, and social work can certainly educate us in how to set boundaries and deal with those. But, we also want to focus on the positive. As the Unshelved guys said the next day, policies are a direct result of someone’s misbehavior. In our session, together we suggested writing positive policies the establish the library as safe space and say things like, “you can always come here and use a computer, even if you don’t have a card.” Why not be as explicit about the good things we offer as we are about the things people can’t do?

  • What does best service look like?
  • How far do we as librarians go? What are our boundaries and our roles?
  • Practice experience – need training?
  • Needs assessment – partnership with social workers
  • One relationship at a time

We also focused a great deal on relationships. Relationship-building is key to the social work practice of serving the “whole person.” What can social workers teach us about setting appropriate boundaries while effectively serving our patrons? What can we learn from them about interviewing a patron on a sensitive topic to provide the best service without becoming too personal?

  • Partnership through service projects
  • Staff training – social work – libraries
  • Embracing new practice
  • Professional to professional connections to serve patrons
  • Social service structures in the community (rural vs. urban)
  • Micro vs. macro needs
  • Consistent and collaborative approach among staff and security
  • Missouri libraries mental health resource: www.librarian411.org

These points refer to suggestions for practice going forward. Some are addressed further in the areas where we would like your help building answers on this site, detailed below. Student service projects in both librarianship and social work can provide great opportunities to try out new, collaborative ideas, and we will continue to work on establishing training opportunities for librarians to learn more about social work theory and practice. One takeaway is to think more about macro practice – i.e., policy setting that goes beyond the dollar ask of our libraries.

Areas where we can use your help:

  • Where can/do you reach out to social workers in your area? We’d like to share that information more broadly.
  • If you don’t know the resources in your area but would like us to find out, contact me and let me know.
  • Do you know of any existing, successful staff trainings on these issues? For example, the Hennepin County Library staff sessions on working with homeless patrons might be a good place to start. Are there sessions you’ve found online? Maybe a group of us could try them together and review them.
  • As you go forward, if you collaborate with social workers in your community, we would love to hear your reports. Success can be a model for others, and “less than success,” while scary to share, can be at least as beneficial for the learning experiences of others.
  • With regards to the J-term class, I will continue to work on that publicly, here, and the more feedback I can get from you on the content, the better it will be. Please continue to watch this site, participate in discussion by commenting on blog posts, and referring other interested librarians to what we’re doing.

Contact me, Sara Zettervall, at any time. I, Mary, Amy, and Jeanne thank you for a productive and inspiring session.

“…And Social Justice for All: How Can Librarians and Social Workers Collaborate?”

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we have a session coming up at the Minnesota Library Association Annual Conference this fall in St. Cloud. …And Social Justice for All: How Can Librarians and Social Workers Collaborate? will take place on Thursday morning, October 10, 2013, from 10-11am. Here are the details. But more than that, I’m looking for thoughts on what we should discuss and how we should discuss it. Below the session description and the bios of our panelists – who I’m sure will be amazing contributors – are screen shots of my reaching out to ALA Think Tank about this on Facebook. I’m hoping to continue to build on those ideas after this post.

Description: 

What do librarians and social workers offer each other in their educational paths and on the job? Where has there been successful interaction between librarians and social workers on the job? What are some shared social justice issues that both librarians and social workers address in their working lives? Where do panelists see potential for growth in our overlapping fields? A panel of  librarians and social workers will address these questions and their own collaborative experiences. Audience members are encouraged to ask questions and offer their own suggestions. If you’re not familiar with current work in this area, never fear—we will start with a brief introduction before diving into discussion. Ultimately, this session aims to offer action points as a takeaway, so that participants can follow up on connections and ideas generated by the session.

Presenters:

Sara Zettervall (moderator) is the Associate to the University Librarian at the University of Minnesota. Previously, she was a Substitute Librarian for Dakota County Library (MN) and Project Manager  at the University of Minnesota Performing Arts Archives. Her past work includes creating a pleasure reading collection for a Minneapolis charter high school and leading an after school book club for teen Somali girls, co-led with co-panelist Mary Nienow. She is passionate about and published in issues of social justice in librarianship. She holds an MLIS from St. Catherine University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan.

Amy Mars is a Substitute Librarian in Hennepin County & Dakota County Libraries and teaches information literacy at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.  She is passionate about library outreach and her past work includes initiating library collections in local homeless shelters Hennepin County and publishing a feature article in the March/April 2012 issue of Public Libraries,entitled “Library Services to the Homeless.”  She is currently implementing a grant to extend library programming to senior residences in Hennepin County.

Mary C. Nienow, MSW, is the Director of Internships and Clinical Instructor in the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Department of Social Work, as well as a PhD Candidate in the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work, focusing on macro practice. She most recently served as the Executive Director of Child Care WORKS, a statewide child care advocacy non profit in Minnesota. Before joining Child Care WORKS, Mary was the lead researcher on Health and Human Services budgets and policy for the Minnesota Senate DFL Caucus.

Jeanne Stevens has more than 25 years of experience working in college, university and public libraries. In 2012, she joined the Hennepin County library’s Outreach Services department as coordinator of the At Home by Volunteer program, which provides library service for homebound individuals. Additionally, she manages the Deposit Collection program, which places mini library collections (books, audiobooks on CD, and more) in 70 senior residences in Hennepin County.  Her newest project is to arrange for volunteers to visit small living facilities, such residential care homes and smaller nursing homes.  She also has an MSW from St. Thomas/St. Catherine’s Universities and worked as a social worker at Lutheran Social Services and St. Paul Public Schools.

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Whole Person Librarianship: The Class

Just kidding, sort of… I don’t think I’m going to call it that, but we (I + Paul Lai + Professor Emeritus Mary Wagner) are beginning work on a 1-credit class on the intersection of social work and librarianship for the St. Kate’s MLIS program’s J Term. In preparation, I’ve started adding some things to our Zotero library and welcome comments on and suggested additions to that.

I’m also starting to outline what we might cover in terms of topic areas. It looks like if we have 3-hour evening classes (pretty standard at St. Kate’s), we will need to meet five times, so right now I’m looking at five topics, each with its own guest speaker. These are in no particular order yet, except for the first one:

  1. Introduction to social work principles and evidence-based practice. Guest speaker: someone from the St. Kate’s SW faculty, or my trusty sidekick, Mary Nienow.
  2. Health care and public librarians. This couldn’t be more timely, and now OCLC is starting to come out with training materials, which would mean a rich base of resources for homework and discussion. Possible guest speaker:  a clinical social worker and/or public library manager.
  3. Libraries and the homeless. Although we think of this mostly in terms of public libraries, academic libraries grapple with homeless library users as well. I expect that we’ll focus primarily on public libraries, but this does make me wonder what kind of response other types of libraries have come up with. Possible guest speaker: Amy Mars, librarian who has worked on setting up deposit collections in homeless shelters.
  4. Services for older adults. In the small amount of info collection I’ve done so far, I’ve already seen at least a couple of interesting-looking collaborations around this topic pop up in the literature. Personally, I need to explore this a bit further, but it seems promising. Possible guest speaker: Joyce Yukawa, St. Kate’s MLIS professor with a special interest in this area.
  5. School social workers and literacy. Schools will often have a social worker onsite even when they don’t have a librarian, and I’ve previously written here about some of my thoughts on that. Just seems ready-made for collaboration. Possible guest speaker: the school social worker who brought Little Free Libraries to MNIC.

This is just a start to my own thoughts, without input yet from Paul and Mary, which is coming soon. I’m sure they’d join me in saying we’re open to any suggestions for topics and resources.

I’m hoping this class can build on the session I’m moderating at this fall’s Minnesota Library Association Annual Conference (yes, I’m burying that particular lede all the way down here: we have a session!). “…and Social Justice for All: How Can Librarians and Social Workers Collaborate?” might ask some of the questions that the class will answer more fully. I will, of course, plan to write up the session here, and should the class come to fruition, it will include assignments for students to write for the blog as well. As always, your thoughts are more than welcome every step of the way!

“I’m not a doctor, so I can’t advise you on that”

If there’s one thing I remember learning in reference class – besides that print reference is complex, and our librarian forebears were amazing to work it – it’s never to give medical advice to patrons. We were all taught to draw a clear line between sharing medical information resources and making recommendations about taking medical action. It’s not something I’ve been called upon to use, but I suspect that will change, because President Obama says so.

In case you’ve been on vacation or were partying too hard at ALA to notice, public librarians received a presidential call to action to help enroll uninsured Americans in soon-to-be-mandated plans. To whit: 17,000 libraries, 7 million citizens, 2 major government agencies (U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services), and a whole list of unknowns. I suspect those unknowns are why I didn’t hear more chatter about it at ALA.* There was some Twitter buzz in advance of the announcement last Sunday, and it was indeed cool that the President made his case to us directly. But at least in the sessions I attended, people continued to be far more worked up about open access, for example, than how we’re going to handle this massive enrollment. In addition, as I trolled the web for fodder for this piece, I had a hell of a time finding librarian blog posts about it. (There has been something in the air, though, as this piece in Public Libraries Online and my own interview with PLA President Carolyn Anthony both made mention of the subject within days of the announcement). Then again, maybe it won’t be so different than the tax season rush that public librarians handle annually with aplomb up front and well-earned grumbling behind the scenes.

Nevertheless, this is a fine example of the disappearing line between public librarianship and social work. A social worker friend of mine sent me the link to the Minnesota Public Radio story on the President’s announcement with the email subject line, “Oh, librarians. I mean social workers. I mean librarians.” Traditionally, a social worker meeting with a client in need of health insurance might offer the very array of options that librarians will be presenting. But a clinical social worker has wider boundaries around the kinds of personal questions they can ask for problem-solving, as opposed to the librarian who has been taught to say, “I can’t advise you, but here’s some information and a computer.” Personally, I hope that as IMLS and CMS work towards October 1, they’ll craft a plan with specifics on how librarians can work around that limitation (some good initial recommendations are available via American Libraries). And like any great endeavor, this offers an opportunity for us to prove our worth on a grand scale or fail spectacularly in the public eye (see the comments on the LIS News blog piece). In the meantime, two weeks from now, we will be offering our own version of a social worker’s advice to librarians on making referrals on this blog, so stay tuned.

* Things I learned at ALA this year: ALA Camp and Battledecks are two very different things (never again!), “let’s not have a space where children can be conceived,” join LLAMA and get a llama finger puppet, and it’s easy to find work in Qatar. YMMV.

An Interview with Carolyn Anthony, PLA President

Last week, I was very fortunate to interview Carolyn Anthony, Director of Skokie Public Library and 2013-2014 President of the Public Library Association, on her perspective on the intersection of librarianship and social work. This is my summary of our conversation.

When Carolyn Anthony started working at the Pratt Library in Baltimore in 1973, she found the remnants of a neighborhood information center. It was part of a network of such centers, all established in inner city neighborhoods following the riots of 1969 and intended to help citizens connect with local resources. She liked the idea of providing local information referral and secured an LSTA grant to bring the neighborhood collection up to date. One thing she believed was that “all the different [information] components should be available in the community, but not necessarily in one location,” so she began to collaborate with the Health and Welfare Council, which included social workers. She discovered, “Social workers had all the information but had trouble keeping it organized and up to date. I said, ‘We can do that!’” Collaborating on the neighborhood collection was the beginning of her work at the nexus of librarianship and social work.

Over time, Anthony has continued to work closely with social workers and other community agencies. “Partnerships should be encouraged, and there’s so much we can accomplish by combining skills,” she says. “They enable us to extend our reach and accomplish a lot more.” In a recent example, Anthony consulted on the development of a combined MLIS/MSW degree at Dominican University in Chicago. She has personal experience with social workers in the public library as well: a few years ago, her assistant head of youth services had an MSW, and they hired a social work student intern for the library. The intern was able to help support development of a new English Language Learning Center, a multi-school-district and library initiative, by building relationships with local immigrant communities. Librarians then followed through on those relationships with programs like “Booking with a Buddy,” which partners Kindergarten and first grade students who don’t have an English speaker at home with a volunteer to read books in English over the summer.

However, Anthony isn’t just interested in offering programming. Like many librarians who have worked closely with social workers or other social science professionals, she has seen that they follow through and measure results in ways that librarians traditionally don’t. Anthony explains, “One of my big initiatives [as PLA President] is a measurement task force and asking them to look at ways of capturing some of these things libraries are doing with digital literacy.” This focus ties into her own recent experience with helping patrons learn more about digital literacy and applying for jobs online during the recent recession. “Patrons would like to know, ‘Can I get some kind of indication that I’ve mastered Word or PPT, or certificate of completion?’” she says. But libraries also need to be able to capture results and show outcomes of the trainings they do.

Among her many other responsibilities, Anthony continues to be interested in helping people connect with health resources, just as she did in her first partnership in Baltimore. “It doesn’t mean we don’t have book discussions and storytime,” she says, “but we need to ask where the library can have an impact right now.” With the implementation of affordable care act, she sees a significant role for libraries in providing information. At her own library, they are working on securing appropriate health information at a simpler language level to share with local Assyrian refugees, in collaboration with a new local family care clinic. Looking to the future of public libraries, Anthony says, we will all need to focus on the person and their community—something we can borrow from social work. “Library capacity can be applied in different ways that we can see even if others can’t,” she says. “We learn from the community, and they learn from us by working together.”

Spectrum of Collaboration

In this post, I’d like to suggest a spectrum of collaboration between librarians and social workers. In addition to addressing why there is a need for librarians to work with social workers and vice versa, we also want to acknowledge that there are a number of ways that this kind of intersection might work to the advantage of all involved. In general, we hope that collaborations can help to break down the silos of practice that are all too common in all professional fields, where people are not looking to others doing similar or intersecting work and therefore often recreating the wheel in coming up with solutions to shared problems. Furthermore, such collaborations, even at a very informal level, should help to increase communications between professionals and thereby strengthen practice of all kinds.

Here, then, in increasing levels of complexity, formality, and commitment (of time, energy, and education), are ways that students and professionals in librarianship and social work might collaborate.

  • Informal conversations between librarians and social workers about our shared work, especially where we might learn from each other about common issues and the people we serve. These conversations might be over coffee or lunch. They might be about a concrete issue or just a general discussion of the work that we do.
  • Events, book groups, or other micro-learning opportunities that bring librarians and social workers together to explore a discrete issue. These opportunities can be ad hoc or more sustained (such as in a regular book group or a series of conversations over the course of a year).
  • Attendance at each other’s professional conferences (librarians going to social work conferences such as for the NSWA or social workers going to library conferences such as with the ALA). Hearing how professionals in an allied field might deal with shared concerns would be useful. Also, conferences provide numerous networking opportunities.
  • Presentations at one’s home professional conference about intersections with the other field. Such presentations would help make others in our own fields aware of the possibilities of collaboration with professionals in the other field. Sara Zettervall will be chairing a panel at the Minnesota Library Association’s fall 2013 conference, for example, on collaborations with social workers.
  • Presentations at each other’s professional conferences. More formal engagements with the ideas and issues of each other’s professional fields would help encourage the type of dialogue necessary to explore intersections productively. (Mary Nienow, who contributed an early post to this blog, will be sharing her perspective as a social work professional on the panel organized by Sara.)
  • For students and faculty… courses that encourage students in librarianship to think about social work and vice versa. These courses would remain geared towards one group of students (such as LIS students) but involve guest speakers and discussions of ideas, methodologies, and approaches from the other profession. Sara and I are currently working on a proposal to create a one-credit course in this model for the LIS program at St. Catherine University and hope to solicit feedback and discussion on the proposal from you all in the near future.
  • Shared courses between MLIS and MSW programs with students from both programs in each class. This more integrated exchange of ideas would also encourage dialogue between students and faculties in different programs. The shared classroom space would encourage further points of contact that could develop into rich, collaborative relationships between professionals in the future.
  • A joint or dual degree program in MLIS and MSW. This more formalized exploration of how librarianship and social work might contribute to a professional identity and practice that synthesizes insights from the two professions is a newer possibility but one that is likely to gain traction in the coming years. We have a couple of upcoming posts engaging with this idea via interviews with the folks who have helped establish such a joint program at Dominican University.

There are likely other models of collaboration, and we would love to hear of them if you have had experience with bridging librarianship and social work.

Computers, Social Work, and Public Libraries

One of the folks we’ve been talking to about this Information + Publics project pointed us to a LinkedIn discussion in the American Library Association group (requires LinkedIn account and access to the ALA group) from about a year ago that touched on the topic. The original question was about how reference librarians should provide patrons with computer help, ranging from basic computer use to filling out byzantine job applications online or other official forms like the FAFSA. In particular, the librarian asking the question was curious about whether other libraries have written policies that detail the extent of help that librarians can provide, especially setting limits in terms of time, type of help, and type of (personal) information they should avoid engaging. Over the course of the robust conversation (70+ comments), many librarians chimed in with their own experiences, solutions, frustrations, and analyses of what issues are really at stake in the current library environment.

At least a few of the librarians made the comment that these situations often bleed over into the realm of social work, where librarians are trying to help patrons access social services. Furthermore, librarians find that they need to interact with patrons in ways that go beyond the reference interview, touching on counseling and other ways of listening and providing advice. The conversation did not end in any grand solutions or conclusions, but there are some great resources shared by various librarians about computer help services they provide in their branches, online tutorials they have found useful as resources for patrons, and suggestions of alternative staffing models for computer assistance.

Only a few of the librarians mentioned that their libraries had active job centers to alleviate some of the issues of reference librarians trying to give ad hoc help with things like online job applications. A number of the librarians, though, noted that local government agencies seemed to be sending people to their local libraries for help with online applications. Certainly, there seems to be a gap here; the move online of many job applications and government forms is leaving people in need of employment and other welfare assistance in an even more complicated situation if they lack computer literacy skills or access to computers and the Internet.

I looked around briefly online and found that the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) , working with the Department of Labor, gives grants to help libraries develop job centers.

Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration (ETA) officially encouraged its state and local workforce investment boards, state workforce agencies, and One-Stop Career Centers to partner with public libraries to extend their career and employment services to job seekers and unemployed workers. The ETA’s(TEN) cements a partnership between the ETA and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) that was announced on June 25, 2010, at the American Library Association annual meeting.

At a national level, at least, it seems that there is a clear mandate to make public libraries a center for providing a kind of computer literacy and career services safety net for people in need. What remains an issue is the lack of resources at many libraries, and these grants can only reach a limited number of libraries each year.

The IMLS and groups like OCLC (with Project Compass, a program that studied how libraries might deal with the recent economic downtown and employment issues) are committed to engaging librarians in the work of remaking libraries into an extension of other social service agencies that provide employment assistance. The issue, as it often is, remains one of funding and other resources like training for librarians. It would be interesting to see if any of the grant funded programs have looked actively at collaborations between librarians and social workers in running job assistance centers.

A Review of “NHS and Social Care Interface”: Information Literacy for Social Workers

One of the things we would like to do through this blog is to collect bibliographies of research related to the intersection of social work and librarianship. We will also provide brief reviews of some of these articles to serve as starting points for considering the issues that arise in these two fields concerning social and information services.

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) has a wiki page on Information Literacy in Social Work that is a starting point for some of this literature review. We encourage people to contribute to that wiki page to expand the list of resources. ACRL is the professional organization for academic librarians who often serve in subject liaison positions to particular disciplines and fields, developing information and reference expertise to help researchers and students in these subjects. There are a number of schools with social work libraries and reference librarians who specialize in helping social work researchers. One of the charges of academic librarians is to teach information literacy, and as such, social work librarians must understand the specific information needs of social workers, the available information resources, and the information-seeking behavior of social workers (and social work researchers–who may be an entirely distinct set of people, as noted by the article I discuss below).

Harrison, J., Hepworth, M., & de Chazal, P. (2004). NHS and social care interface: A study of social workers’ library and information needs. Journal of Librarianship and Information, 36(1), 27-35. doi:10.1177/09610006040429712004

Harrison, Hepworth, and de Chazal’s (2004) “NHS and Social Care Interface: A Study of Social Workers’ Library and Information Needs” is one of the few articles that seems to address social workers’ information needs from a library and information science perspective (or at least using the language of LIS research), and the researchers all come from the LIS profession. The usefulness of a LIS perspective for such questions is the training that LIS researchers have on the infrastructures of information and on understanding how information circulates between people.

Harrison et al.’s article is a decade old now and focuses on a United Kingdom context. (As a side note, my unscientific searches of Twitter for tweets about social work and social workers seemed to retrieve mostly UK tweeters, and I wonder if there is a difference between how social workers in the US and the UK use social media….) Some of their findings are likely no longer current as the information landscape, particularly with computers and Internet communications, has shifted so dramatically in the last decade. Still, it would be interesting to see if there is follow-up research or related studies more recently that might show what has changed for social workers’ information needs in the UK.

Using questionnaires, focus groups, and semi-structured interviews, Harrison et al. gathered data from social workers working in a university hospital setting (generally in multi-disciplinary teams) about how they accessed information to conduct their daily work. The researchers found that social workers depended primarily on a verbal culture, asking colleagues and managers for information and help rather than consulting published information resources (either in paper or electronic). Many of the findings were rooted in social workers’ continued dependence, at the time of the study before 2004, on print publications such as the professional journal Community Care and lack of use of computers and Internet sources. Some respondents noted a desire to use computers more frequently (but were not provided computers at work) and other respondents expressed discomfort or fear of having to learn to use computers (technostress), which they also figured would inevitably involve assuming the secretarial aspects of their work themselves when they are already overwhelmed with work. Finally, Harrison et al. noted that social workers were by and large not consulting current research in the field, neither reading scholarly journals regularly nor looking for specific types of research to guide their practice.

Harrison et al. concluded that many of the problems they identified could best be solved by providing social workers better access to library services and helping them developing stronger relationships with librarians/information specialists. The researchers noted that though the university hospital setting provided well-resourced libraries, social workers often did not have access to them or were not encouraged to use them as much as the medical staff were. They noted that social workers are professionals whose work with people, like the work of medical care staff, is structured by laws and policies governing proper care of the ill and the poor, and thus social workers need to be able to find such information. Furthermore, social workers need these library services to connect them to current research in order to enact evidence-based practices (an important concept in medical care). Working with librarians would allow social workers to find these information resources and alleviate the concerns they have of information overload and lack of time to find publications on their own.

This article identifies one way that librarians/information specialists can work in medical and social services contexts outside of traditional libraries. The authors also help to explain what expertise LIS professionals have in understanding information needs, information-seeking behavior, and other issues concerning knowledge and communication in workplaces. As much as we at this blog are interested in exploring how social workers might help librarians in the public library context to do their work better, we also want to examine how librarians working on other contexts might help social workers do their jobs better as well.

* You can also find the article on Mark Hepworth’s Academia.edu profile.