Social Work for Librarians: Cultural Humility

One of the foundational concepts of social work is “cultural humility.” Cultural humility builds on the belief that each person is an expert on his/her/their life and recognizes that our cultural experiences shape how we view the world. We each exist at the intersection of various cultural spheres, and we make assumptions about how the world works based on that perspective. Our responsibility as human servants committed to social justice, whether we are social workers or librarians, is to foster awareness in ourselves that our perspective isn’t the only one and trust others when they speak about their own lives.

I’ve had this concept in mind since before the election, when I encountered it in the second module of the introductory social work course on edX, but post-election it has become even more relevant to library work. Some aspects of cultural humility were familiar to me and may be to you as well, whether you’ve heard this particular term before or not. The call for allies to support individuals and groups rather than try to speak for them is an example of cultural humility. Shailene Woodley does a good job of explaining allyship in a video that was trending this weekend:

Changing the Narrative with Shailine Woodley from Longhouse Media on Vimeo.

Cultural humility goes a step beyond allyship, though, and asks us to actively and consistently remind ourselves that other perspectives are just as valid as our own. One useful comparison to make is cultural competence vs. cultural humility. Cultural competence calls for knowing about working with different categories of people. Cultural humility says that while knowledge can be helpful, the best way to know and understand another person is to maintain a state of openness, nonjudgment, and curiosity. This is much more difficult than it sounds. We all bring cultural blindspots with us as we move through the world, and for most of us the only way to reveal those blindspots is through conflict. For example, a lot of folks who move from the east coast U.S. (where I grew up) to Minnesota (where I now live) will at some point find out they’re perceived as brash, loud, and/or demanding by people who grew up here. There’s nothing wrong with being outgoing and opinionated, and there’s also nothing wrong with waiting until you know someone better to trust them with your thoughts, but bringing those behaviors together without thinking can lead to frustration and embarrassment. And this is just a small example–nothing compared to the larger misunderstandings that can easily happen when we assume that what’s comfortable to us will be comfortable to others as well. When we take on cultural humility, we are taking responsibility for treating those embarrassing moments of misunderstanding as learning experiences. We pledge to ourselves that we will swallow our pride and have empathy for the other person.

Sometimes, the stories we need to hear and the things we have to accept aren’t comfortable and will conflict with our own beliefs. One local example involves our large population of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis. Somali women born in Somalia have some of the highest rates of female circumcision (or female genital mutilation) in the world, upwards of 90%, and often with the most extensive cutting. Healthcare workers in Minneapolis, most of whom aren’t from the Somali culture, began to find that they had to cut women open and sew them back up again when they gave birth (so that they have a vaginal opening large enough for the baby to pass through; cutting is safer than letting scarred skin stretch and tear). While that’s customary to many Somali women, it was a surprise to the health care providers. Many of those health care providers object to FGM as a cultural practice, but they are tasked with supporting mothers for whom that decision had passed long ago. Eventually, many providers recognized that their role had to be preparing the mothers who were already cut for the reality of birth with their existing bodies, and also preparing their fellow providers to treat the Somali women’s bodies with respect. There are now some prenatal classes for Somali women that normalize the circumcised birth experience.

Most of our interactions in the library aren’t that challenging, but we all know that public service brings us into contact with the full spectrum of human experience and opinions. Cultural humility supports the understanding that libraries can’t ever be neutral and challenges us to think about whose perspective we represent in our collections and programs. Who aren’t we hearing? Who are we silencing?  Following the recent election in the U.S., librarians have stepped up to show how knowledge can help bridge the ever-widening bipartisan gap, as exemplified by Libraries Respond. In the spaces we create, we can let cultural humility be our guide. We can’t dictate a perspective, and we can’t be passive in the assumption that we’re neutral (a great cultural blindspot for librarians). What we can do is hold space for the voices of our patrons. Create conversations. Facilitate dialogue. Model with our own behavior what it means to be a flexible and empathetic human being. This is always challenging work, but it’s also our most important work.

Libraries and the Election: A Whole Person Response

I just finished reading this post from R. David Lankes, best known as the author of The Atlas of New Librarianship, and this related post from Anthony Molaro. Both men are professors of library and information science, and both call for action from knowledge professionals in response to this week’s election. Lankes focuses on the work knowledge schools must do, and Molaro make suggestions for public library programs and services that anticipate the knowledge needs of our communities.

Both also, whether they realize it or not, are echoing Whole Person Librarianship’s call for person-centered social justice in librarianship.

Lankes reinforces that we need to act equitably if we truly want to support diversity. He mentions the extra work we put into reaching incarcerated patrons, for example, and the importance of promoting universal design. Molaro suggests we all begin to prepare to educate our patrons on health care following the seemingly inevitable demise of the Affordable Care Act (a great idea and one I intend to adopt). He also mentions hosting more civic conversations in libraries, which reminds me of the work ALA has done to support libraries as centers of community conversation (Libraries Foster Community Engagement). Significantly, the ALA Public Programs Office just received a grant to offer training on civic engagement to all librarians. The timing on that obviously couldn’t be better.

Whole Person Librarianship is a concept as much as a practice. It unites social work methods, rooted in social justice, with how we conceive of our roles as librarians and how we approach knowing our patrons. I sometimes find it challenging to justify the importance of WPL as a concept in a world where people are looking for direction on what to do. What good is an idea? What does it do for us? I think this moment provides something of an answer. Each of the responses suggested above, and more that are out there, are based in knowing the person in context. We serve incarcerated patrons best when we understand they’re where they are not because they’re “bad” but at least in part because of larger social systems they had no choice to be born into. We understand the importance of educating the public about things like health care options, not because we’re taking a political stance but because we see our role in a larger continuum of care. Even as we individual librarians approach the hurt and frustration of our community members – regardless of which side we’re on – a person-in-context approach can give us the strength to respond with empathy.

All of this, especially the notion of hosting community-engaged conversations on challenging topics, begins to raise the question of library “neutrality.” There’s plenty to read and discuss about that if you want to stray down that path. But one of the beautiful things about WPL is it provides a framework for action that doesn’t require worrying about being neutral. Sociology, human behavior, psychology, and other social sciences that inform social work methodologies are based in research and evidence. I’m thinking here of how children’s librarianship has been elevated by educators’ research into early literacy skills. Because of the work of researchers, we know that early language skills have a lifelong impact, that parents are their children’s best teachers, and that we can help them be aware of their teaching skills and boost their children’s achievement. This is no small part of why youth services librarians are now superstars, where they used to be seen as frivolous. Evidence-based practice inherently supports equity.

Adult services librarianship never fully emerged from our post-Google identity crisis. The more we respond to social struggles, the more we define our new and powerful role as conveners and educators. We need to name and claim this movement so that we have a common vocabulary, both for moving forward and for justifying our role to our leaders and communities. Whole Person Librarianship provides a unifying approach to piecemeal social justice-based responses and defines our purpose and identity.

Social Work and the Limited Scope of iSchool Research

…until LIS educators teach library reading and library as place in their professional programs at the core level, and until LIS researchers ask questions about what users learn from their interaction with libraries and determine how that learning fits into their everyday lives, both are addressing only a fraction of what libraries actually do for their patrons.

It wasn’t easy to pick an opening quote from Prof. Wayne Wiegland’s “Falling Short of Their Profession’s Needs,” a piece about the limited and self-limiting research performed by iSchools. I recommend going back to read his whole article before reading this reply; he questions the iSchool phenomenon in ways I’ve so far braved only in my own mind and not out loud on the page.

I would add to Wiegland’s call for inquiry into the longitudinal impact of library reading and library place on diverse populations and say: the future of librarianship will be defined by our commitment to fostering social justice. The research that Wiegland cries out for is the very kind of research that would support a future in which we make life more equitable for our patrons. Where does research on the outcomes of summer reading programs lead but to a rationale for supporting it for our most at-risk young patrons? Where does research on the community impact of teaching and learning and conversation among patrons from all walks of life lead but to justification for offering safe space for all? As Weigland says, we who are practitioners have shouldered much of the burden of documenting as responding to the results of the work we do on our communities. But as long as we labor under the burden of an academic leadership that prioritizes human-computer interaction over bibliotherapy – just to give one example – we will always be fighting for recognition. We need leaders inside library science who stand up for and celebrate research on the social impact of our work.

I respect Prof. Wiegland for being an academic within the profession who calls for this. I respect my mentor, Prof. Sarah Park Dahlen, for supporting this kind of work through her research exposing the shameful discrepancies in representing diversity in children’s literature. And I know there are other professors fighting for the place of social justice in librarianship as well, and they are righteous and growing in number.

One of the areas in which I have seen the greatest potential for library-social work collaboration is in research. Our social work colleagues have spent the last century exploring and naming the role of social justice in the context of a helping profession. Our colleagues in education and social work have refined techniques for qualitative evaluation that could easily be applied to public service librarianship. The academic framework exists for us to do the kind of work we need to do; it’s up to us to step forward and embrace it. We know we are far more than information. Let’s own that and figure out how we’re going to make it part of our institution and professional narrative.



Social Work MOOC Update

One thing I realized when I wrote up my reflections on the first module of this edX/University of Michigan Social Work MOOC is that one blog post per module might not be the way to go. In theory, I like the idea of some of us taking the MOOC together and then commenting on it. In practice, I didn’t find that to be the most effective way to share what I really hope to get out of this, which is application to library practice. I need to approach this in a less linear way. So, I’m going to keep taking the class and let some of the ideas and approaches percolate through my mind as I work. When I come across something valuable, I’ll post about it here and link back to any relevant part of the MOOC.

I am particularly interested in continuing to publish ideas here on applying social work theory and practice to librarianship and would welcome contributions from anyone who wants to be part of that conversation, MOOC or no MOOC.

Finally, I learned that the MOOC I started is now the first in what edX calls a “MicroMasters.” I refuse to pay $200 for each course, so I’ll be auditing it, but I’m stoked at the array of topics the courses will explore. Check it out. I think that for someone with the time to devote to it, this can be a great opportunity for librarians to learn the basics of social work.

Invite us to guest lecture

There’s a new tab on the WPL menu: Guest Lecture

Mary Nienow and I have already given guest lectures in person and online to graduate courses in librarianship and in social work. We’ve talked about Whole Person Librarianship and about library-social work collaboration more broadly. We’re always happy to talk to classes and wanted to make it a little bit easier to invite us to do so. Please feel free to reach out.

We’re also keeping the Ask WPL page for my general inquiries.

Buschman, libraries, and the public sphere

Little known fact: before Paul Lai and I started this blog, we very briefly had another one. Though the blog itself had a very narrow focus (reorganization of our MLIS program), this particular post still resonates today.

St. Kate's MLIS Reorganization Discussion

If any of you have read some useful analyses of the relationship between the values of librarianship and the values of the corporate world, please share them in the comments of this post or email me if you’d like to contribute a guest post. I’d love to see more of this discussion foregrounded on the blog.

I’m about half way through John E. Buschman’sDismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy (Libraries Unlimited, 2003), which Elaine Harger at Progressive Librarians Guild recommended as background reading on the dangers of mixing business and librarianship. The book is revelatory for me, and Buschman put into words (almost 10 years ago!) many of the vague concerns and frustrations I have felt this past year while immersed in coursework and trying to keep up with some of the current conversations in librarianship through online…

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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.