Within the last couple of weeks, I’ve done an informal survey of LIS faculty interests across our most reputable PhD programs, based on how they present themselves in online profiles. To summarize my impression: virtually everyone outside of youth services (and to some extent archives, but that has always been its own world) is focused on the information science part of “library and information science”: informatics, human-computer interaction, information technology policy, data management. This isn’t really a surprise, I suppose, but seeing it written out so starkly in descriptions of faculty interests has really driven home what I’ve also observed in my workplace. We consolidate, organize, manage, and disseminate information of all types; increasingly, we also participate in the generation of the information we then curate (publishing open-access electronic textbooks, for example). Librarianship is pinpointing its focus on information provision.
I don’t oppose information scientists in managing big data, helping faculty members make fair use decisions about copyright, or working as researchers to understand the way people decide how to word their Google searches. I’m happy for people to be studying and working on those things, but I’m happy about it in the same way that I’m happy my brother gets to design large engines, which is to say, keep up the good work, folks, but there’s no need invite me to join you. What troubles me is not the focus on information, but rather that it increasingly seems to be the only focus. Personally, I was attracted to librarianship not because I love information itself but because I love to help people harvest what they need from that well-tended field of information. That human focus is what I miss so much in our professional trajectory towards information science and is one of the things I am striving to restore to significance through the application of Whole Person Librarianship.
To give one example, my place of employment recently invited a couple of research library to speak to staff about the history and future of academic research libraries. When the historian spoke about the development of modern American librarianship during the latter part of the 19th century, he focused on the Dewey decimal system and card catalogs – how librarians took inspiration from the Victorian scientific ideal of exerting control over the world through documentation and indexing. That’s a valid and insightful connection, but I had a another track running in my mind, in which librarians were part of a simultaneous social movement to open up and a free world of knowledge to people of all backgrounds – and what’s more, to facilitate the connection between people and knowledge. There were undoubtedly aspects of that movement which would seem problematic to us now – the idea, for example, that some books are “good for you,” while other books aren’t – but the it was part of a larger trend of social justice and expanding democracy that also blossomed into social work. I want the legacy of that to be acknowledged, respected, and valued equally to the legacy of the card catalog.
At the same time, though, I’ve been wondering if I’ve picked the wrong side and am fired up to fight a battle that’s already been lost. I tried to suggest to someone yesterday that public librarians, in a future where books and articles are all accessed through a central database, could still have a vital role in being the connection between people and that distant information source. Her response was that such a role would be considered “less than,” and public libraries would no longer be able to continue to justify funding their existence. She pointed out that public libraries will be fine as long as people keep checking out stacks of 30 picture books, but what happens when that stops? This was someone whose opinion I respect a great deal, and her response poured a bucket of cold water over me.
But let’s think about this for a moment: parents and caregivers do come into the library to check out stacks of picture books, that’s true. But they also come for all the fantastic literacy programming that youth services librarians put together. Where can you find the most creative outreach programs in the public library? Youth services. Where are our faculty still focused on studying how to reach and educate people, giving consideration to their developmental and social needs at least as much as the format of the information they use (aka, considering the whole person)? Youth services. So why aren’t we looking to that model for success? Why is programming and the human focus “less than”?
I would suggest that our professional dismissal of the human focus is due at least in part to neglecting our place as a social science, alongside social work and education. There are methodologies for evaluating and measuring the impact of services that we could apply more broadly in our research and practice to begin to put the human focus on par with the information focus in librarianship. When I’ve asked about, for example, measuring the impact of prison library services on the literacy rates of inmates, I’ve heard about why that’s a very difficult thing to do. But I don’t know that we, collectively, have yet tried everything we can do and supported each other in making in-depth, social science-based research happen. I don’t know that we have pushed hard enough and far enough to say what’s too difficult for us to accomplish. In the meantime, the vacuum that was left by the death of traditional reference services is being filled by the expansion of information management, and where that’s lacking, by business models that codify the dumbing-down of our public services.
So, going forward, if I ever do seem to be the enemy of the information focus, it’s because I feel the human focus – consultation, public services, programming, outreach – needs strong advocacy to reach parity. Whole Person Librarianship is a catchy name for this messy yet necessary rallying point: Librarianship is a social science, so let’s put the social back into it.
Sundays, January 5, 12, 19, 26, 2014
12:00-4:00pm CDC 20
St. Catherine University
Mary Nienow, MSW, Clinical Instructor and Director of Internship, Department of Social Work, UW-Eau Claire
Sara Zettervall, MLIS, MFA, Associate to the University Librarian, University of Minnesota
“I may not be a social worker, but I know how to find one for you.” Would you feel confident saying this to a library patron? Do you wonder what social workers do and why you should know? Social workers and contemporary American librarians share a common grounding in the great populist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and our work continues to overlap today in outreach to diverse and at-risk populations. Whole Person Librarianship builds on the social worker’s call to serve the “whole person” by seeing patrons as experts on their own experiences within the full context of their lives. In this class, you will begin to learn what social work can teach librarians about embedding social justice in our professional ethics, and you will have the opportunity to offer practical assistance to connect Minnesota libraries with social work resources.
This site started with the intention of promoting a discussion of how librarianship and social work come together. We’ve had some amazing content to share over the seven or so months of weekly posts – but we’re also finding it challenging to bring in new voices beyond our core participants. Meanwhile, our work on Whole Person Librarianship continues outside of what you see on this blog. In recognition of the function this blog is already playing, we are officially refocusing this blog to be a public documentation of our work as it happens. What that means is we will still welcome discussions and contributions, but we will no longer be following a weekly posting schedule and will instead include content as it arises from our research and teaching projects.
To that end, as Mary Nienow and I plan to co-teach the WPL class this January, we’re interested in giving students a project that would partner them with working librarians to find social work resources in their communities. If you’re interested in learning more and/or signing on, please contact me or reply to this post. I’ll be back soon with more info on the class.
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.
This post has nothing to do with Robin Thicke.
With that out of the way, I just finished “Librarian or Social Worker: Time to Look at the Blurring Line?” by Rachael Cathcart.* Published in 2008, it anticipates the current call for public librarians to facilitate health care sign-ups. Cathcart focuses on e-government, stating,
Services for which e-government… is most frequently in demand include immigration applications, tax forms, medical insurance claims, disaster recovery assistance, Department of Children and Families forms, and job applications. Helping people in these areas is a whole new responsibility for public librarians. (88)
And she recognizes that this represents “an implicit blurring of the line between librarian and social worker” (88). At this point, looking back, it’s fairly simple to trace the steps that led to the more explicit blurred lines of the health care assistance mandate, and Cathcart recognizes these as well. As the government began to save money by putting services online that required universal access, users without internet access at home increasingly heard the the refrain of “visit your public library for help.” Public libraries have been crucial and visible leaders in assisting users who fall on the have-not side of the digital divide, and in that respect, the President’s call for librarians to help register users for health care is a victory in high-level perception of the role of librarians in public, digital access to resources.
I recently spoke to a long-time public librarian who felt forced into the role of assisting homeless and mentally ill patrons, and while he seems to represent the minority, his opinion does raise the question of whether we have been in control as we veer nearer to social work. Many of us embrace the opportunity to help all of our patrons, and in particular this blog seeks to present a model of critical thinking and leadership that will help us do a better job of that. But did we, as a profession, knowingly choose the path to this point? To a great extent, what I see is that we’ve adapted–sometimes successfully and enthusiastically, but reactively–to the changes we have faced.
When I sat down recently with my co-leads for the upcoming conference session (a summary of which will be reported here in two weeks), a question we all had, and which we intend to ask our participants, is where we can fill in that blurred line between social workers and librarians. We probably won’t find a complete answer in our hour of discussion, but the more we define that line, the greater control we as librarians can take over our professional destiny. The digital divide will continue to bring patrons to our doors who need technical assistance and can’t get it anywhere else, and it we’re lucky, policymakers will continue to see our public libraries as home bases for that kind of help. But we, in our professional confidence, can and should be the ones to know and say how we help people with empathy and confidentiality, and when and where we point them for more in-depth assistance. The closer we come to being social workers ourselves, the more we need to know about our place along that blurred line.
* Cathcart, R. (2008). Librarian or Social Worker: Time to Look at the Blurring Line? Reference Librarian 49(1): 87-91. This has also been added to our Zotero library.
Last week, I suggested that turning to a model of how social workers interact with clients might be useful for librarians who work with homeless patrons. In a related post today, I want to continue thinking about how looking to the relationship between social workers and their clients might reinforce particular values already important in librarians’ relationships with patrons. This type of thinking is less about transforming understandings of librarianship than it is about highlighting the values of care for individuals and the development of complex relationships with people and communities that are already inherent in the way most librarians think of their work. In particular, I want to foreground how social workers work deliberately to establish trust and strong relationships by focusing on confidentiality.
The idea of confidentiality in a professional relationship is central to many professions where personal, health, educational, and other types of information form the basis of the work relationship. For example, doctors and patients have a relationship structured by the confidentiality of patients’ personal information and health conditions, something protected in the legal realms as privilege. Many other professions rely on the confidentiality of information as well, and a large subset of these professions also have legal privilege in protecting that confidentiality (including psychologists and many social workers). Librarians, however, are generally not considered in that subset of professionals whose working relationship with patrons is privileged in legal courts though there are certainly many librarians who advocate strongly for extending that privilege to reference encounters. (See for example Austin’s  article on the topic.)
My reference class certainly focused on the idea of confidentiality in the reference interview encounter, and it is clear that protecting the privacy of individuals and their personal information is at the heart of librarians’ conceptions of reference work. This confidentiality is important if patrons are to feel comfortable asking for information or for help in locating certain types of information. The limit cases that often come up have to do with sensitive topics such as information on sex or sexuality. However, it is worth keeping in mind that what may seem a trivial topic to one person may be of utmost importance and delicacy for someone else, so in effect, librarians should think of all information requests as potentially sensitive. In any case, reference librarians must consider how to interact with patrons in ways that foster a sense of trust. Instead of foregrounding values of efficiency (how quickly can librarians provide needed information and just what is requested?), librarians might focus on how to work with patrons in ways that fully respond to their information needs, whether those patrons know how to ask for that information or not.