“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.


Public Librarians and Health Care: A Social Work Perspective

by Mary Nienow, MSW, Clinical Director and Instructor of Internship, University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire

As I was procrastinating in the writing of this blog entry on what social workers can teach librarians, I received call from a public library asking for my help. With the advent of the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare), low income adults without children can now qualify for medical assistance. The librarian (let’s call her Susan) was wondering if my social work students would be willing to help with outreach and assistance to people filling out the forms. Her comment, “as librarians we can’t necessarily help them fill out the forms and would love the social work department’s help,” really struck a chord. Citing privacy concerns and equating it with offering tax assistance or legal help, Susan indicated that they can only provide the forms now answer questions or assist in the completion of the forms. While I am delighted to foster this partnership, it highlights for me, once again, how interconnected the scope of practice really is between librarians and social workers.

Susan mentioned that there will be on-line courses my students can take so they better understand the forms and what is being asked, but it got me to thinking… what kind of information or skill does a social worker have that could be put into a few short on-line courses for librarians? The first, and probably most difficult thing, is expecting each interaction to take longer than you plan. Each person coming to the library has a story. They are more than their name, age, address, and place of employment (or lack of employment). Social workers take the time to uncover the context of the client’s environment. Taking the time to do this builds trust, which is essential in building a helping relationship. If all you do is focus on getting answers to put on a questionnaire, in as short of a time as possible, you will find the person you are trying to help wary of your intentions. They may become hostile, short with their responses, or too verbose in a way that will only impede your efforts. This is because a power differential may have developed where you are the expert, and the patron is dependent upon what you have to give them. It turns out the client is the expert on their story (or the reasons they seek certain information) and often they want that story heard, acknowledged and appreciated—as we all do. Making assumptions about people, their circumstances, their needs, or their abilities is the best way to misunderstand and ultimately not help those we are seeking to serve.* Remembering our purpose, which I bet is not just to help someone fill out a form or find a book (but rather to help them get health insurance, lead a productive life, or seek knowledge and self-fulfillment), can make the time we spend feel like an investment not an exhaustion of our resources.

After time, social workers become trained listeners. They must breathe through their desire to immediately problem solve, rush to a response or insert their “expert” opinion. Comfort with silence gives room for the person to speak. I often tell my students to count their lag time. Lag time refers to the pause between when one person stops speaking and the other starts. Allowing at least five seconds between asking a question and getting a response is appropriate. In my family we have what I call “negative lag time.” Before I can finish asking my question, they are jumping in with a response. It’s annoying. Giving space to think, collect one’s thoughts and answer in a deliberate manner signals and is usually more productive than trying to rush a conversation or come to a particular solution (or fill out a form).

For more information on the role of libraries and the Affordable Care Act, see: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2013/06/28/health/library-affordable-care-act

*A word of caution. This goes well beyond “cultural competence.” Understanding cultural populations is important, but assuming we know how “they” operate (even if we are a part of the “they”) is dangerous and counterproductive. A term I like more is “cultural humility.” Again, it means being aware that we can’t ever understand all aspects of a particular culture and the only way to learn is through relationship and respectful exploration over time.


The Pursuit of Social Work as a Previous Librarian

By Julie Row, MILS, MSW

An article from the blog post on March 31, 2013 has stated that a social worker must carefully consider their audience when they share information online. Not only is this important in regards to ethics, but it is also my personal motive for this post.

I always receive a different response from individuals when I share my professional history. Many are surprised, some are confused, and others are curious. I always discuss my decision to pursue social work after working as a librarian. It is often pleasing to observe their reaction when I explain the connection between serving the public as a librarian then as a social worker in a low income neighborhood.

I was the primary youth librarian for a mid-sized branch in a low income neighborhood for approximately 26 months. I created a safe space for the teens to visit in the afternoons, where daily after school programs and monthly events were organized. I also administered two summer reading programs, with celebration parties that had special guests such as a state Senator.

Eventually, a strong level of mutual respect began to develop between myself and the teen patrons. As a result, a few of the teens also started to confide in me. Personal issues were shared, that I knew as a youth librarian, I was not professionally allowed to handle. I discussed such matters with my supervisor who advised me to contact an available social worker. I took the initiative as a librarian to find the contact information of a local social services agency for one of the teens. There was no more that I could do.

Therefore, I began the process of researching the field of social work. I assessed from my research that a potential social worker would be able to provide a broad range of services. I also respected the purpose of leading the client to empowerment and self sufficiency. Consequently, I made the decision to enroll in a master’s degree program.

In my opinion, the importance of serving the public is indisputably consistent in both social work and library science. Whether it be through books or mental health services, the local community and its needs are central. However, if a potential student knows that they will work in a public library, additional coursework regarding workplace culture and social issues may need to be considered. A possible concentration in public librarianship can be developed for library science programs in larger cities.

I successfully completed the master’s degree program and I can now pursue a license in social work. Due to this accomplishment, I can finally help teens who may be experiencing significant issues.

Julie Row, MILS, MSW, is a recent graduate of the master’s degree program of social work from the University of Southern California.  She is also a graduate of the information and library science program from the Pratt Institute in New York, where she worked as a librarian specializing in urban public library services for youth between the ages of 13 through 18 years.  She is a strong advocate for diverse communities, including youth with special needs. 


Why Social Workers Need Librarians: A Social Work Perspective

By Mary C. Nienow, MSW

The field of social work is a broad one. Social workers can be found in schools, hospitals, state agencies, nonprofits, for-profits, and everywhere in-between. One important but missing venue is libraries. I have been in the field of social work for fifteen years and I have never heard of libraries employing social workers.* This seems like a lost opportunity for our profession.

More and more it appears that libraries are the heart of our changing communities, especially in urban areas. The digital divide is conquered through free access to computers in libraries. English language classes are taught in libraries. Community meetings are held in libraries. Information of every kind is available in libraries.

Social workers are trained to be good communicators, information brokers, and organizers. We understand the complex interaction of structure and culture. We bring a “person in their environment” perspective to all the work we do. Knowing how to ask good questions and elicit relevant information in order to problem solve is a part of our requisite skill set. What better place to employ this skill set than in a library setting?

One particular issue that clients of social workers face is the stigma of needing help. Being situated in the library partially removes this stigma as the library is a place everyone goes to find help-whether it’s a research report on butterflies, using a computer for a job search or registering to vote. The combination of a non- pejorative setting with trained professionals available to offer this assistance is an exciting concept.

Working hand-in-hand with the trained libraries would be an essential component to this venture. I am not as familiar with the training of librarians, but from my observation they come to their work with an analytical mindset. They appear to have a wide grasp of how and where to access needed information. They never seem to get flustered (at least from the outside!) when presented with a particular request for information. This calm and strategic approach to problem solving is something that social workers could benefit from greatly. We are trained in research methods, but often times we want to solve the problem quickly without taking the time to really understand the solutions being presented. This is understandable given the myriad of issues with which social workers are confronted: hunger, poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, abuse and joblessness. Wanting to end the suffering of another human being is natural and commendable. However, action without thought can have unintended, even harmful consequences. Thought without action can never lead to the resolution of plaguing problems. Together social workers and librarians can make a dynamic and powerful difference in the lives of people they are both called to serve.

I hope we can continue to dialogue on this fascinating concept of social work and libraries. I would love to hear more from librarians that have often wished they had a social worker on their staff. How would that have helped you accomplish your work more effectively? In what ways would the patrons of your library benefit from the services of a social worker? What do you need to know more about when it comes to social work? What can you share with social workers to help them better understand the world of libraries and the resources you bring through your experience and training? Breaking down the silos between our professions is exciting and I look forward to forging a partnership between us.

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.

* Editor’s note: Librarians may know of the social worker hired by the San Francisco Public Library that made news in 2010. But, the fact that we’re still talking about this one example (and an interested social worker hasn’t heard of it) shows there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress. It may be worth compiling a list of other examples, if they’re out there.