Library Social Work: Meeting People Where They Are

people on different floors of a library

By Josette Keelor

two people reading on a staircase of books

Libraries are known for the free services they provide communities — from books, magazinesand other media to programs like classes, workshops and children’s programs. When combined with other participating organizations, libraries can provide nearly unlimited resources that help community members achieve success.

Dr. Mary McKay sees libraries as an opportunity to place social workers with a full range of skills in proximity to communities in need of social services.

“A library is a public good for all,” said McKay, an NASW member, vice provost of Interdisciplinary Initiatives at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and president of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.Libraries offer such a conducive location because they serve individuals as well as vulnerable groups in a place that is accessible and less stigmatizing.

Libraries and social workers are “just a wonderful fit,” said Will Francis, LMSW, executive director of the NASW’s Texas and Louisiana chapters. “You want to find spaces in the community where people already go.”

Libraries are safe, free spaces where people of any age, economic situation or educational level can participate.Ideally, Francis said, social services would not be tough to find or difficult to access. Library social work is about “meeting the client where they already are.”

Libraries are helping social workers in that effort through research, community connections, partnerships with university programs, and access to grants.When it comes to connecting people to needed services, “there’s a lot of collaboration that happens,” said Alicia Melnick, an LCSW with the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and a member of NASW. “We really see the libraries taking over as community centers and community hubs in a lot of these communities.”

Starting Conversations

people on different floors of a library

Tiffany Russell, a Michigan counselor and NASW member, wasn’t familiar with library social work before 2018, when she was hired by the Niles District Library through a three-year, federally funded $200,000 grant from the Library of Michigan for the “Social Workers in Rural and Small Libraries” project, which also served six other area libraries.The project was highly successful, Russell said, but it ended when the grant money ran out and, to her knowledge, hasn’t been renewed.“It’s just a bummer,” she said. “I hope that they consider bringing it back one day. I don’t know what their conversations are at this point.”

Calling such programs “very necessary,” Russell said that social workers provide a unique perspective to connect with community members.

“I think social work is a very importantperspective to have at the table,” she said. Since library social work is still a new concept to many people, she said conversations are essential to promoting similar programs elsewhere around the country.

“People did question the social work position and why it was necessary,” she said. “That’s where communication comes in.”

She recalled that community members better understood its importance after she talked with them.

“There were so many people who were shocked that a social worker was at a library.”

Addressing High-Need Areas

Melnick, who has experience in hospital social work and helps lead Pittsburgh University’s Library Social Work project, has seen the positive impact having social workers in several Pennsylvania libraries has had on the community.

They started small with grant funding for about five libraries, she said, but “built significantly” to more than 10. They provide food boxes outside their libraries and refer patrons to various community resources.

“It’s been going great,” Melnick said. “We are in our fourth year.”They saw a lapse in patronage in a lot of libraries after the COVID-19 reopening, she said, and now patrons are returning and having more complex needs.

They’re “really trying to meet each person where they are when they come in,” Melnick said.

For libraries that have implemented social work programs, their level of success is often reliant on community support.

Denver Public Library was one of the first in the nation to implement a program, and though it has experienced ups and downs since it started with one social worker in 2015, the program has since grown to support a team of 10 staff members across its 27 libraries.Their vision is to promote “a strong community where everyone thrives,” said Brianne Hanson, manager of the library’s social work program.

When fully staffed, she said they also have a supervisor, two specialists to provide services at branch libraries and six peer resource navigators who schedule times to meet with community members in need. Previously, their two specialists could only be social workers, but Hanson said last summer they hired their first non-social worker to the position.

The Denver library system is an example of the level of success that library social work programs can achieve with community support, and Hanson said the program’s first social worker, Elissa Hardy, did “a really stellar job” of building the program and adding staff members so they had the capacity to serve their population.

Hardy’s leadership set the program up for success, Hanson said, so that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, and they scaled back their services for a couple years, they didn’t lose too much momentum. During that time, they focused more on research of their community’s needs, Hanson said. Then, last summer, they started scheduling times that would best support their locations systemwide.

“Our program went through a lot of changes this last year,” said Hanson, who took over as manager in December after Hardy left to pursue policy work.

Denver has a very high needs population, Hanson said, so they focus on neighborhoods that need more time with the peer navigators, who get around to 14 branch libraries each week and spend up to three hours at each one.

These efforts, she said, have increased the team’s capacity and also addressed team members’ mental health by helping prevent burnout.

“We prioritize branch libraries,” Hanson said. “We’re that first step in connection for the folks that we serve.”

Addressing Homelessness

one person reading and one person napping on a couch in a library

People experiencing homelessness are some of the main clients aided by library social work programs, but they’re also some of the most stigmatized.

In a test to see what library services she could access as a hypothetical unhoused person, California Bay Area-based librarian Dr. Julie Winkelstein said she once approached a library desk with an empty rolling suitcase to ask if a homeless person could reserve a meeting room without an address. Not only denied, she was met with such a wall of judgment that she quickly backed off the persona she had invented — a persona she noted many other library patrons can't so easily drop.

"I then said, 'I’m not homeless,'” she recalled. "Because I was so uncomfortable.”

The experience was enlightening, she said, because of her unexpected response. It has served to fuel her interest in offering library training classes taught by people who have a history of being unhoused.Currently looking for grant funding to start these new library training classes, Winkelstein said she wants to invite those from the unhousedcommunity, especially youth, to help plan the classes.

"When I talk about what libraries can do, I talk about staff training," she said. "And bring in people with the lived experience. They know what they want you to know because that’s their life.”

Winkelstein, who has a PhD in Information and Communication from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, worked in libraries in Alameda County, California, for more than 20 years, and wrote a library-related newspaper column for many years before libraries started implementing social workers.

Currently, she teaches library classes for the University of Tennessee School of Information Sciences related to homelessness and poverty.Funding and community partnerships play a big role in how much librarians involve social workers in their efforts, she said.

"One of the best things they can do is have staff training," she said, "and work with partners, if possible."

It can be easy for library staff to think that hiring a social worker will make it so they don't have to be directly involved in addressing homelessness, but that's not true, said Winkelstein, who has worked throughout her career in various library positions, including in jails and prisons, family and jail literacy, on a bookmobile and in a branch as a children’s and young adult librarian.

Training opportunities can educate staff on how to engage with people in crisis while delivering a solution for rural libraries that don't have the funding to employ a social worker but still want to partner with social workers from the community.

Such resources include public school liaisons who work to provide resources through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and can help libraries assist patrons who are experiencing homelessness. McKinney-Vento requires schools to identify students experiencing homelessness as defined by the U.S. Department of Education.

Though library social work expands upon a library's mission, it still very much supports the purpose of community libraries, Winkelstein said.The goal of a reference librarian, she said, is that “each person who’s left the library has gotten their library or information needs met.

"Libraries can do this by relaxing the rules that require members to have a physical address on file, eliminating fines for overdue materials, and implementing “honor shelves” to set aside high-interest books that patrons can access without a library card.

In educating themselves and offering more ways to connect with community resources, library staff members can help reduce the stigma around homelessness, Winkelstein said.

Many libraries have policies concerning body odor, sleeping on the premises and prolonged use of their public bathrooms — policies she said wouldn't exist if not for people who use the library for personal needs they can’t address elsewhere.

For Hanson, it was her passion for helping unhoused individuals that inspired her interest in social work. An undergrad student in 2017 when she approached Hardy about interning at the Denver library, she was told they weren’t offering internships in human services, her field of study. But she kept their program in mind as she finished her bachelor’s degree with a concentration in mental health and counseling, then completed a master’s in social work from Boise State. Currently, she’s pursuing a doctorate in human services from Walden University. Before starting at the library, Hanson worked in housing but said she got burnt out.

Library social work is about “creating connections withfolks from all different walks of life, and it was something that I wanted to be a part of,” she said. “We’re that first step in connection for the folks that we serve. Once we build relationships with folks, they are going to want to come back.”

Building for the Future

open book with drawing of a house and dollar sign

Where funding has been a challenge for continuing programs, students studying either social work or library science can offer a solution.Sarah Johnson, a Cincinnati, Ohio, social worker with a master’s in library science, has been working with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on one of the country’s first dual social work and library science master’s programs.

Dominican University in Illinois and the University of Michigan also have programs, she said.She became interested in library social work after working as a librarian for 11 years at Hunter College’s School of Social Work in New York City and learning the college had never placed a social work student in a library. This got her started on an extensive research project that eventually led her to forging new educational pathways.

Johnson has been teaching a course at Illinois since January 2022, which started with 12 students and now has almost maxed out with 25. Additionally, half of her students are working in libraries, and they’re coming to class with stories of working with patrons experiencing homelessness.“The library students are really hungry for this,” she said. “You don’t get this kind of training in library school.”

Metropolitan Library System in Oklahoma is in its second year of using master’s degree social work students from Oklahoma University to provide services during their practicum at several library locations, said Kimberly Boldt, a librarian and director of Outreach & Engagement Services for the library system, which has 19 libraries in and around Oklahoma City.

Especially since the start of the pandemic, Boldt said she’s seen an increased need for library-hosted services.

In addition to placing students, they’ve been working with the Department of Human Services and an embedded worker program to place DHS staff at their Del City library location once a week.

“We’re working with DHS to expand this program to cover other areas that we serve,” Boldt said. Additionally, they’re working with the Homeless Alliance in Oklahoma City to provide supervision for students and are hoping to grow their partnership with the Homeless Alliance through co-locating housing navigators at a number of their locations.

“There is much to be done yet,” she said. “Many more co-located services could potentially assist many of the most vulnerable in the community.”

Johnson and a fellow researcher are also working with the New Jersey State Library in partnership with the Rutgers University School of Social Work to write a curriculumthat prepares and educates social work students being placed at host libraries starting in September.

“It’s considerably more cost effective for them to start with a student,” Johnson said.The grant began in January, and the planning team for “Social Work Informed Library Services in NJ” chose 10 libraries from the 36 that applied to be part of the program.But placing a student requires a lot of preparation into who’s going to supervise the student and what regulations will be in effect for future students.

“There really needs to be a clear understanding with the library,” she said.“While I think it’s a great trend, it just needs to be done well,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, in that test period, they end up finding consistent funding or they end up makingit a line item in their budget and employing the social worker permanently.”

More Funding Needed

Last fall, Rep. Sylvia Garcia, of Texas, introduced the More Social Workers (MSWs) in Libraries Act, which a news release at her website explains “seeks to further strengthen public libraries as community hubs by facilitating aspiring social workers into library facilities across our country.”

“The bill will help reinforce America’s social worker talent pipeline by creating a paid social worker internship program at public libraries across our nation,” the release says.

“Specifically, under the MSWs Act, the Department of Education would develop a program to provide competitive grants to institutions of higher education that would be used to:

  • Fund an internship for social work university students in a regional public library; and
  • Employ a qualified social worker in a regional public library to oversee social work student interns."

Garcia’s bill is “a wonderful start” and “vital to the process” of garnering national support for library social work, Francis said.

“The future is really how can she bring attention to how vitally this service is needed?”

Also praising Garcia’s efforts, McKay said, “It needs to be one bill among many. It’s really important that this legislation gets noticed.”This is “an incredible opportunity” to get social workers to people who need them, she said, but funding and partnerships are essential to keeping those efforts going. “I would not say that we’re at a groundswell moment,” McKay cautioned.

Case in point: the successful program Russell oversaw in Michigan that ended when the grant funding dried up. Recalling how Niles District Library served at least 500 people from 2018 to 2021, Russell said that number undoubtedly would have been larger if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t happened during that time.

“I think another success is the community’s response and the patrons’ response,” Russell said.In particular, they had several repeat clients who kept coming back for help with different problems.

“They look at us as someone they can trust,” she said. “And then they come back.”


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