This post was written by Carrie Sanders, Youth Services Coordinator at the Maryland State Library

annual 2019 logoI was fortunate to be able to attend the PLA pre-conference focusing on the partnerships library staff and social workers can build in order to support all members of a community. The session opened with a reference to Eric Klinenberg who wrote, “Libraries don’t just provide free access to books and other cultural materials, they also offer things like companionship for older adults, de facto child care for busy parents, language instruction for immigrants and welcoming public spaces for the poor, the homeless and young people.”

Social workers in libraries provide support for library patrons through crisis intervention, outreach and engagement, referral services, community programming, and advocacy. They also support library staff. Their presence creates a culture shift that moves the question regarding those in need from, “How do we remove?” to “How can we connect those with specific needs to services?”

Representing public libraries across the country, pre-conference panelists provided insights into moving from a focus on removal to a focus on connecting to services.

Some of what they suggested for getting started with the change from a focus on removal to connection includes:

  • Look to healthcare providers, local agencies, and leaders at the local and regional level .
  • Use your network in city government or non-profits.
  • Develop a story that helps others to connect to your priorities in supporting those in the community with needs that you’ve identified.
  • Look at your library’s vision statement or strategic plan so to connect this work to the library’s core values and goals.
  • Work with a local university to connect with a master’s level Social Worker intern who can jump start a partnership.

An effective library-based social worker will be proactive in developing relationships with needy library customers. Ideally, a social worker is not sitting at a table with a Social Worker sign overhead. This person is circulating, engaging, building relationships. Many do not advertise their role but build their customer base through word of mouth or quiet intervention.

If the library is going to hire a social worker to provide services at the library there are some of the questions to answer before moving forward include:

  • Who on staff will supervise the social worker?
  • Will the social worker have office space?
  • Should the social worker have experience with mental health issues?

photo of packed house at PLA preconference Annual 2019Many library social work services include a “peer outreach” team made up of individuals from the community who have lived challenging experiences (e.g. experienced homelessness or suffered substance abuse). Members of this team can, as a result of their own personal experiences, make empathetic connections. These peers meet library customers “where they naturally are.” Just “honoring their presence” makes a huge difference in the lives of those in library who often have nowhere else to go.

While the panelists were from large cities: Washington DC, Denver, Chicago, and San Francisco, they focused on practices and strategies applicable to all libraries. The morning concluded with the astute comment from an attendee, a social worker from a rural library system: “Libraries who are not in large, urban areas with a homelessness problem can still benefit from a social worker. People need a lot of things outside homelessness. The needs are there.”

The reality is that those in communities large and small face challenges related to substance abuse, homelessness, domestic abuse, lack of access to resources, mental health wellbeing, and so on. Library staff hear the questions, and see the faces of those who confront these challenges, and often wish they had more to offer than the book, website, program, or smile. Through partnerships with social service agencies and through hiring social workers for the library, libraries can work to support community members who face these challenges As one panelist stated, “libraries and social workers are partnerships in humanity.”

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