Over the last 4 years at Red Deer Public Library, I have found that there is a fine line between social work and teen librarianship. I am quite comfortable with the tweeny boppers plunking themselves down in a chair every day after school (or during if they are skipping) and telling me all about their lives.’  This I can handle, as usually they just want someone to nod and smile and offer the occasional bit of advice.

The problem has arisen with the high contingent of at-risk street teens using the library who inform me of serious problems such as addictions, pregnancies and suicidal thoughts. With these teens I try to refer them to someone more qualified in the area – a doctor, counsellor, specialist, etc, but follow through is limited and/ or non existent with many of them and I am left torn between the fact that A) I know they have not sought help and B) I know it is not my responsibility as a librarian to get them that help.

Or is it? It may not be in my job description, but to have a pregnant, drug addicted 14 year old that you know has fallen through the cracks of the system, one cannot help but feel a little responsible. Have my other fellow librarians found a way of successfully dealing with these issues?

About Jen Waters

Jen is the Teen Services Librarian at Edmonton Public Library in Alberta, Canada, where she happily spends her time ordering controversial teen novels, planning crazy programs and being insulted by teens on a daily basis.

9 Thoughts on “Social work @ your library?

  1. My personal belief is you’re doing the exact right thing: referring them to the person who has the education, training, and resources. We have MLSs not MSWs. Now if a library wanted to hire an MSW? That’s a different story.

    If we want people to respect our professional credentials, we should respect others professional credentials. Just because we care deeply about the teens, doesn’t mean we have the education, skill set & training to be all things to them. I’d be interested in hearing real live social workers weigh in on what, if anything, librarians should (or should not) do.

    Our job is to know who does have the resources to help teens, and figure out how best to give them that information.

  2. Lorraine on August 10, 2009 at 1:32 pm said:

    This is something that I think about all the time, actually. We have a high-needs population and often acutely feel the need for a social worker or counselor who can help our teens with issues such as sexuality, welfare, bullying, etc.

    We ended up looking at the Queens PL model (I can’t find a link, but there’s an article from a little while ago in VOYA by Lambert Shell called FLIPPING IT.) They started out partnering with a social work agency to run programs and monitor teen areas during the busiest times; now they have a fleet of social workers employed by the library system doing all sort of outreach in their libraries.

    We are starting small by hiring a doctoral student in Student Counseling to do a casual Game Club, and hoping to pull in interns from the nearby School of Social Work. They won’t be set up to do counseling appointments, but they will be here in our Teen Area on some afternoons, providing a link and resources to the teens and staff.

  3. Jen Waters on August 10, 2009 at 2:10 pm said:

    Thanks to both of you for the suggestions! We do have a couple outreach street workers from a local drop in centre who occasionally come by the library, as well as a woman from the Teen Sexual Health Clinic that I hope will be part of our “No Boys Allowed” girl’s club this fall, but I do find that the teens tend to run away the minute they see someone who looks remotely social worker-ish. Hopefully in time they will get used to seeing them around, and be a little more receptive to help!

  4. Alissa L on August 11, 2009 at 6:52 pm said:

    I have struggled with this almost every day since I started my job four+ years ago. I think that is one of the biggest things that I struggle with- some days I think public librarians should have some social work training and also be mandatory reporters (like teachers)- but then would the teens be as open with us? My first year as a librarian (and I was not much older than my teens at the time) I had a young man who was seriously depressed and I was at a loss for how to help him. Thankfully, he was unsuccessful in his suicide attempt and has grown up to become a stable young adult now but I felt like I had failed him and have resolved never to let that happen again. I am very lucky in that my library has a Behavioral Specialist/Adolescent Mentor on staff 12 hrs. a week. He is a guidance counselor at one of our middle schools during the day and so he knows a lot of the teens already. I frequently send him talk to a teen if I feel like they need more help than just the friendly ear and tidbits of advice that I can offer, or I’ll pick his brain for the types of suggestions I should be making to them regarding certain situations.

    One of the things that I’ve been working on is compiling all the different places that someone can go for help (on a variety of the issues that I’ve heard about from pregancy, depression, suicidal thoughts, etc) into a brochure that I can give them to take with them- but also that I can put out in the teen area that someone can pick up without feeling the information forced upon them. I am hoping to form some connections with other youth serving groups in the future so that when I have a teen that I feel is facing an immediate crisis, I know who to call on their behalf. I know teens who have fallen through the cracks in the system and if I knew who to call to get them on the radar of social services, or whomever, that is another weapon I have in my arsenal to help them.

    I certainly did not become a librarian to be a social worker, yet some days I feel like I’m more of a parent, babysitter, social worker/counselor, than a librarian. Our downfall is that we care – but then, that’s what makes us so important.

  5. I hope all of y’all interested in this topic plan to be in DC next summer, because this very subject is the meat of our full-day preconference–all of those “not my job” hats we end up wearing as teen librarians.

    One fantastic model I saw at Sex::Tech back in March comes out of St. Louis–The Spot offers a ton of services in a single location. I think true community centers like these should be our inspiration for libraries, which are often de facto community centers but just as often without the resources (or the staff, or sadly sometimes the desire) to be successful in these “non-library” arenas.

  6. Jen Waters on August 12, 2009 at 11:01 am said:

    I really wish the CLA conferences had topics like this too … and when I proposed one to them for a session, they shot it down! I may see if I can convince my library to let me go to ALA next year.

  7. I think that libraries, rather than replicating community centers, should be working with community centers. We can complement and collaborate; and where such community centers do not exist, perhaps look into how we can bring that about. A library cannot (and should not) be everything to everyone, and we definately need the resources & training to do our best at what we can be and to help people connect with and find resources beyond that.

  8. Emily Watson on August 12, 2009 at 9:33 pm said:

    I would highly suggest NOT being a social worker if your position is a teen librarian. I realize that sometimes it is impossible to separate some of the “social work” aspects of the job, but it is critical to not take on responsibilities that you are not trained to handle. Legally it is a minefield as well. Obviously do not throw teens to the wind if they are trying to reach out to you for help, but really think about what Liz B has to say. As we would not want other professionals to take on our jobs, we should not take on theirs. Referrals are invaluable.

  9. i think that once in a while, we should do some social works too because we should help other people .

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