Ask WPL: How can I find a library practicum that incorporates social work?

Tania says: I wanted to ask if you have any advice for finding library practicums that embrace WPL. I am a library student with previous experience as a case manager at a not-for-profit mental health organization. I am having difficulty finding library practicums combine librarianship and social work.

The thing about library-social work collaboration is that in its latest form, it’s still a pretty new idea. While some libraries are bringing in social work interns because they recognize the need for that kind of help, it’s less common anywhere to take the next conceptual step and combine librarianship and social work into one role. So, it’s not surprising that you’re not finding a lot of options. But, I still think there’s a lot of possibility out there if you expand the frame you use for WPL.

Even if potential supervisors do not, you know what special skills you’re bringing from your social work background. Are there particular populations you’ve worked with more than others? You might start by looking for internships in areas that serve more people like the ones you have special expertise in working with. A common example would patrons experiencing homelessness: if you’re interested in working with that population, you could look for a practicum in an urban library that would give you plenty of public service time. That’s just an example – if you’ve worked with particular age groups or immigrant populations, you could take a similar approach to looking for a high-touch position where those folks are located.

Similarly, you may want to look more generally for positions that focus on outreach and/or community engagement, or seek out an internship at a library that does a lot of community-based work. Again, this might require using your own expertise to suss out the possibilities inherent in the internship. I’m thinking of a neighborhood library I work at – we could describe a practicum here in such a way that it might look like it’s only covering the basics of library work, but because I know the library and the diverse patrons who come here, I can also see how someone with a social work background could contribute something to the team and to our approach to service.

The second piece of the puzzle is working with a creative and innovative librarian. My practicum wasn’t something that was posted or offered to me – I made it happen by approaching a librarian I wanted to work with. Even if you don’t find someone who latches onto your social work background right away, a supervising librarian who is open to experimentation and new ideas can help you create a space for bringing in your own version of a WPL approach.

One you have the right location and supervisor, you can take some responsibility for utilizing your social work background in that position. Think of it as an opportunity for you to educate others as well as an opportunity for you to learn on the job. If the people you’re working with see your social work expertise in action, and they see how it makes you shine as a librarian, that’s a profound way to help spread awareness. Another great thing is that a practicum – as opposed to a less structured internship – should give you the opportunity to reflect on your experiences. Take advantage of that and focus any surrounding research and writing you may be doing on the aspects of WPL that you see as relevant while you’re learning your new position. You could even share your results here, if you want!

I hope that’s helpful, and I’d welcome further questions and comments. Also, if someone in the Chicago area happens to be reading this who might have an opportunity for this particular student, please email me, and I can put you in touch.

Ask WPL: Social Work Interns and Patron Privacy

Heather asks: My questions/comments are about the balance between a patron’s expectation of privacy vs. making them aware of available services. We have social work interns at my library a few days a week, for a few hours at a time. They have made connections with some of our regular patrons, either because library staff told the patrons about the intern or because the intern approached the patron directly, but they spend a lot of their time sitting/waiting/walking around/observing. What, in your opinion, is the best, practical approach for making the interns visible and patrons aware of this service (which is only available a fraction of the hours we are open)? Thank you.

This is a great question, and I’m sure it’s a real learning opportunity for the interns about how to approach clients as well as a challenge for you. The good news is there are some practical examples out there of how your interns can expand their reach while still respecting patron boundaries.

Ask your interns to build relationships with patrons broadly, rather than focusing attention on those who are readily identified as being in need. This fosters holistic understanding and trust, so that patrons who might not have a service need at the moment will feel safe to ask for help in the future, or patrons who aren’t readily identifiable as being in crisis become comfortable with talking about it. You and your interns can create intentional, social spaces to foster these interactions. One great example that has been successfully replicated elsewhere is Dallas Public Library’s “Coffee and Conversations,” which brings patrons and staff together around coffee and questions or activities that foster discussion. This regularly scheduled time together was designed to reach patrons experiencing homelessness but was not publicly framed as such, so everyone is welcome. It has the added benefit of giving other library staff an opportunity to have positive interactions with patrons on equal ground, which they might not get to have while at the desk or enforcing rules.

Create announcements or promotional materials that are directed to all patrons. This frees you from the burden of trying to identify people to approach and also helps the patrons feel like they’re not in a “special” group for participating. At Minneapolis Central Library, an announcement is “pushed” to all active computer stations when service providers are in the building, inviting patrons to come and visit with them in their designated space. This could also be accomplished through a PA announcement or posted flyers that use the same design as any other materials you put out about services and programs in the library.

Experiment with “office hours” in addition to free-range time. This actually isn’t all that different than some of what’s been mentioned above, but it’s worth pointing out. If you give your interns a designated space and time slot in the library and then promote it, that can attract a different sort of clientele (i.e., patrons who may feel more shy) than those who are willing to engage in conversation on the floor. Your interns could raise initial awareness of their “office hours” by scheduling a services fair at that time, bringing in representatives from local social service agencies. Depending on your patron audience, this could be passive (allowing patrons to walk up and talk to the service providers), or it could be more of a general-education program where members of the community learn about the diversity of needs around them and the good work that’s being done to address those needs.

No matter how you decide to proceed, it’s important to recognize that all relationship-building takes time. One way for your interns to move forward and feel productive regardless of whether they’ve met a “tangible” goal each day is to take some time for reflective practice at the end of the shift and/or end of the work week. I saw the success of this first hand when I recently got to observe the Health and Safety Associates (outreach workers) at San Francisco Public Library. When I asked them how they decide to approach people, they had some obvious flags (waking up sleeping patrons seems to be a good way to start a conversation, if done with care), but mostly they said they learned through trial and error of starting conversations. What makes this “feel it out” method successful for them is the structured support provided by their supervisor, the library’s social worker. They have time set aside at the end of each shift to debrief and reflect on what they’ve experienced that day. This makes them feel supported, helps them to let go of anything difficult they encountered during the shift, and turns challenges or mistakes into positive learning opportunities. The HASAs told me how grateful they are for the support they get. If you don’t already have this in place, intentional time for your interns to talk through their work, whether with a library supervisor or their internship field supervisor, could create a safety net that enables the intern to take more risks and learn from them.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful and would love to hear from you and anyone else with further comments and questions below.

My library wants a social work intern! How do I make that happen?

by Mary Nienow

Libraries are great places to host a social work intern. Because these are public spaces, librarians are faced with many of the challenges that come from being a place where people with numerous complexities in their lives come to for safety, warmth, connection, and information. Social workers use libraries to hold support groups and educational workshops, and to help clients access resources they need to live healthy and productive lives. Community social workers and/or a social work intern on-site is a growing trend in libraries across the country and the world. If you are considering a social work intern at your library, here are a few things to know and do.

Students completing a degree in social work are either seeking their Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree or their Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Schools offering these degrees are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, which requires an intensive internship prior to graduation. The minimum number of hours required at the BSW level are 400 hours and at the MSW level 900 hours. Many programs require more hours and vary in the amount of time students have to complete these hours  anywhere between one semester to two years. Libraries may consider partnering with a local social service provider to co-host the intern, both for community relationship-building and to help diversify and fill the student’s requirements.

In order to successfully complete their internship, students must demonstrate competency in a number of areas:

  1. Demonstrate ethical and professional behavior
  2. Engage diversity and difference in practice
  3. Advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice
  4. Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice
  5. Engage in policy practice
  6. Engage with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities
  7. Assess individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities
  8. Intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities
  9. Evaluate practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities

We hope to provide examples of how social work interns can fulfill these competencies in libraries in a future post and would love to hear from you with examples.

To get started:

Contact the social work department of your local colleges or universities and ask to speak with the Internship Director (aka Internship Coordinator, Field Director).

Explain your vision of how a social work internship in the library would help a student social worker gain experience and competency in the above areas and how it would help your library better serve the patrons and community in which you are situated.

Ask the Internship Director what process you would need to go through to become an approved agency that can accept social work interns. One thing to take into consideration is that social work interns are required to have a licensed social work field supervisor, and the Director can help you navigate that.

Collaborate to develop a plan that is empowering for the intern and will allow the library-school partnership to flourish and continue into the future.

What other questions do you have about this process? Do you have examples of successful social work internships your libraries? Please share in the comments.

ALA 2015 Follow-up and Thanks!

Thanks to everyone who came to our conversation starter at ALA! We estimate 60-70 people in the audience, which was great. Mary and I were so glad to get to know and talk with so many of you. One of the most actionable items to come out of that conversation is connecting libraries with social work interns, so we’re working on a “how-to” post about that.

In the meantime, note that we have a new “Ask WPL” page (linked upper right) where you can send us questions, comments, and blog post ideas. There seems to be a hunger for further conversation about this topic, so we could very easily have some blog posts dedicated to discussion, or if people would rather talk through an email list, we could look into setting that up.

I also did a write-up of the session for Cognotes, but if it gets published, it will be in the conference wrap-up issue, which doesn’t yet seem to be online. So, I’m hoping I’m not violating any copyright by sharing the draft with you here. I’m also attaching the PPTs from the session.

Thanks again, and whether it’s here or somewhere else, we hope you’ll keep the conversation going!

Cognotes Conversation Starter on Librarianship and Social Work (PDF)

Social Justice for All ALA final (PDF of PPT)

WPL in Public Libraries Magazine

WPL at ALA in San Francisco!

And we have a conversation starter at ALA in San Francisco! Right now it’s just me and Mary, but you know I’m going to invite everyone I can think of who has some involvement in this work to participate, and hopefully we can build a panel. When the scheduler is up, I’ll share a link to that.

…And Social Justice for All: How Can Librarians and Social Workers Collaborate?

Monday, June 29, 2015


Location TBA

Here in the nation’s first city to hire a full-time social worker for its central public library, you’ll hear a lot about serving our least advantaged patrons. But we and our social work colleagues have a shared history of commitment to social justice as well as much to learn from each other in theory and practice. Does your library system connect directly with social services? How do you make social justice part of your daily work? Bring learnings from your work life and from conference sessions to this open conversation with a public librarian and social worker.

Sara Zettervall is a librarian at Hennepin County Library (Minneapolis, MN), sharing her time between a local branch library and Community Connections, which provides system-wide community engagement support. She co-founded a blog, Whole Person Librarianship (, to explore the intersection of librarianship and social work, and has since been invited to present on the topic in MLIS programs and write about it for Public Libraries magazine. She was a 2014 ALA Emerging Leader. Sara has worked in academic, public, and school library settings and hold both an MLIS and an MFA.

Mary Nienow is a PhD candidate in Social Work at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where she also earned her MSW. She specializes in macro practice, having over a decade of experience in research, teaching, advocacy, program coordination, policy development and analysis in public and private organizations. Mary was previously the internship director at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and she has been involved in Whole Person Librarianship from its inception.

Two awesome articles on librarianship and social work

I can’t tell you how excited I was to see this title:

Westbrook, Lynn. 2015. “I’m Not a Social Worker”: An Information Service Model for Working with Patrons in Crisis.” Library Quarterly 85, no. 1: 6-25. Library Literature & Information Science Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed March 31, 2015).

This has by far the best concise history of library-social work overlap I’ve seen (not that there’s much competition). I wish I had written it, but I guess now I don’t have to. Not to mention how often I find myself talking with colleagues about the need for thoughtful crisis management in the library. Get access to the full article however you can.* I highly recommend it.

Then there’s this:

Shelton, Jama, and Julie Winkelstein. “Librarians and Social Workers: Working Together for Homeless LGBTQ Youth.” Young Adult Library Services 13, no. 1 (Fall2014 2014): 20-24.Library Literature & Information Science Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed March 31, 2015).

I’m pretty sure you can get the PDF of the whole issue here. Julie Winkelstein is the one other librarian I know of who is doing serious theoretical work as well as practical work in the librarian-social worker intersection (plenty of people are doing awesome practical work, but not everyone is studying it in depth). It’s thrilling to see her work appear in professional literature.

* I thought it would be available in MN through ELM, but the link that says it goes to full text only goes to a preview in JSTOR with a link to buy the article for $14. YMMV.


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