By: Amy Schofield, Community Outreach Manager, Richland Library
I’m fortunate to work in a library system that values innovation in many forms -- including supporting an entire department of library social workers. In 2014, Lee Patterson, LMSW, was hired with grant funding from the Knight Foundation to provide accurate, unbiased information on the then-new Affordable Care Act. Now, our reach includes a team of social workers who provide a range of services, including in-house consultations with library customers, educational opportunities for the incarcerated, health literacy programming, and staff training. Four years ago, we introduced social work services into our library as an enhancement to our existing work. Today, these services have become an integral force in the library’s efforts to provide value to our community.
Several libraries across the country now have social workers, and I think it’s safe to say that those of us who don’t have social workers want them. Whenever we discuss a project or service with other librarians and mention our social work department, it quickly becomes the focus of conversation. The idea of social workers in libraries just seems right to librarians. At Richland Library, we often say social workers and librarians are BFFs, and it’s true. Here’s why:
None of us need to be convinced that libraries are still relevant, long after the Internet has replaced us as the go-to for casual information seekers. However, when we honestly look at the types of questions we’re getting and what our patrons really need, it’s clear that social workers are our perfect counterparts. At Richland Library, our social workers are able to provide individualized client (the social work word for patron) consultations for questions that require subject expertise: How can I get health insurance? Why did I receive this letter that my benefits are being canceled? Where can I apply for food stamps? They offer guidance that librarians aren’t able to: assisting with phone calls, providing follow-up help, and offering detailed insider information, e.g. “You’ll need to show up an hour before the clinic opens to get a place in line, and once there, you’ll need to ask for this service specifically. We’ve found it helpful to bring this specific information with you.”
Patrons cross through our doors with these questions because they are seeking compassion, and they know the library is the place to get it. They are hoping for answers that cut through bureaucratic hurdles, where they don’t feel like a number. But social workers are not just super-kind, selfless superheroes. Working with disenfranchised, vulnerable clients comes with its own set of issues, many of which are not intuitive. Among them, knowing how to create boundaries (and when) is incredibly important, as is the value that social workers place on a client’s self-determination and confidentiality. These skills are excellent complements to our library ethos.
Having social workers on our team has been extremely beneficial for library staff as well. Most public librarians have had to accept limits in assisting patrons in crisis. Having social workers as an option is a huge relief to staff who often want to help but aren’t sure how. Social work skills have also found their way into staff trainings on extremely important issues such as dealing with patrons in crisis, handling situations where children and vulnerable adults are in danger, and even self-care, issues that every public librarian faces but are not covered in our library training.
In considering how social workers and libraries might continue to integrate, it is interesting to consider how the profession might change in relation to the needs of patrons. As social workers and librarians learn from each other and see the benefit of our partnerships growing, perhaps the future may hold a hybrid space where we exist together in new ways.