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.

WPL Presentation Slides

Thanks very much to Professor Nicole Cooke and UIUC’s GSLIS students in Information Services for Diverse Patrons for hosting the first ever virtual presentation on Whole Person Librarianship this morning!

Here’s a PDF of the slides: Whole Person Librarianship

(As always, please cite me if you use anything from it.)

What is “Whole Person Librarianship”?

If you’re visiting this page because you searched for “whole person librarianship” after seeing it on my ALA Emerging Leaders card, welcome! This post is for you.

Whole Person Librarianship is a nascent set of principles and practices to embed social justice in every aspect of library work. It began as with this blog as a place to elaborate on the profound and increasingly important practical connections between social workers and librarians, particularly in public libraries. The name “Whole Person Librarianship” came from the social work model of seeing and serving the client – or patron – as a “whole person” in the context of his or her life. As those of us working on the blog moved into different realms of librarianship and social work, the definition of WPL as an idea began to broaden to encompass our professional identity. I have long believed in librarianship as a social science, not just a technological science, and most recently found that as a sister social science, social work provides a model of how to embed social justice in our professional ethics as well a practice.

However, this is more than a connection between social work and librarianship. Recognizing librarianship’s enduring place as a social science positions our practitioners and researchers alongside those in education as well as social work, who share a commitment both to professionals in the field and academics working towards best practices that enhance our ability to serve people.

Work on this blog has slowed down while work towards a future for WPL has taken off in other directions. If you look through the blog, you will see my social work friend Mary Nienow and I began to work on a 1-credit class for this past January. That didn’t happen and instead is blossoming into a full 3-credit class to take place this summer. I don’t just welcome but encourage your participation and repurposing of these ideas, and I hope you’ll contact me about any part of this that interests you. This can be the future of our profession.


Sara Zettervall

2014 ALA Emerging Leader

Putting the Social in Social Science

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.


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