Social Workers at the Library

Partnerships between libraries and community social services expand access to resources

Libraries and social workers have a lot in common. Both are dedicated to serving every demographic in their community and are willing to develop innovative solutions to share resources. Recently, community social workers and libraries have overlapped in new ways through partnerships to address community needs.

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People use libraries for a variety of reasons, some even stopping by for the most basic needs like a place to warm up or check the news. Often users might benefit from the advice and aid that social workers offer. When libraries and social workers come together, the reach broadens and increases access to resources. Many libraries now employ or host social workers within their physical building to provide comprehensive services to their patrons.

Libraries in the Chicago area recognized that many houseless patrons were already using library services and could gain a lot from the knowledge that social workers offer. Groups of houseless patrons often use western Chicago’s Oak Park Library where they could stay warm, use restrooms, and connect to the internet while shelters were closed during the day.

The library created a joint workshop with the Harwood Public Innovators Lab to provide important information and guidance. This later led them to hire their first full-time social worker who helped develop a library team trained in resource advising, mental health, and first aid. Additionally, the team at Oak Park Library performs regular outreach trips to various library branches to identify those in need. They are skilled at serving patrons with special needs. This ensures that individuals with mental illness or substance abuse are receiving specialized care.

The Dallas Library system has created the HELP Desk which stands for the Homeless Engagement and Leadership Program Desk. This homeless engagement initiative provides many essential services like one-on-one assistance with everything from housing to food insecurity or activities that promote interaction and inclusion. A sample of some of the programs that the HELP Desk provide include:

Coffee and Conversation- a free event for those to gather in the library’s Community Exchange Space to enjoy coffee, cookies, and conversation.

Game Day- an afternoon of card games and board games with library staff and other library patrons.

Music Classes with Mr. Smith- a music lesson hosted by library staff with similar interests. This is held twice a week and library patrons can learn how to play the keyboard, the guitar, or both.

Throwback Thursday Classic Movies- an event held twice a month where the library shows classic movies in the auditorium for patrons to enjoy.

As successful programs and partnerships integrating library services and social services become more prevalent it has been found in many communities that another population that can benefit from the work of social workers at the library is people who are new in their community. In many cases, patrons who are new to their community might require resources and assistance, from finding others with similar cultural backgrounds to getting basic needs like food, internet, or utilities. Many rely on the social services offered at libraries and other nonprofit organizations in the community.

Someone new to their community will have to jump through unfamiliar hoops that people who have been there longer are well accustomed to. They may need guidance applying for Medicare, searching for family doctors, or enrolling their kids in school. These are all crucial and basic needs that need to be met. Social workers are great resources for connecting new community members to the care and social services that they need.

Libraries are a welcoming and easy place for everyone to access and a place that many newcomers visit when becoming acclimated to their community. By partnering with social workers, libraries make it easier for immigrants and new community members to get assistance. Services can be provided in a relaxed environment.

There are a variety of social service programs that libraries offer to their patrons. These programs can touch on many different aspects of social services like housing aid, resume review, or even time to relax and enjoy the company of others. Libraries are a central gathering space and a place that people already come to for information about dealing with issues such as grief, economic hardship, child resources, caring for aging loved ones, and more. Housing social services within the library space make it more likely that people needing assistance will encounter the resources that they need.

Library social work is an innovative way to address social concerns. Because libraries have always served as a central gathering place these initiatives increase accessibility and utilization of resources in the community. Libraries are safe spaces that many people are regularly visiting. Working with social services is one way that libraries can adjust to the changing world and needs of their patrons.

In 2018, the Public Library Association (PLA), created a task force to recommend a strategic approach for libraries to address their patrons’ social service needs. This led to a network of resources that came together to discuss solving specific concerns. Partnerships were formed through existing relationships and then expanded upon to develop the services that we see shared between libraries and social workers today. Many professors and social workers also joined in on the effort and served as resource coordinators to engage their communities and offer a platform for discussion of these issues and their solutions.

Encouragingly, social workers are now specifically entering the library field. In addition, libraries now have wide networks of relevant community organizations to lean on when new problems arise. In the Chicago area alone, the public library is in collaboration with over 45 organizations.

Partnerships between libraries and social services are still in the innovation stage which means there is a lot of potential for these collaborations in the future. There are so many advancements that libraries have made which cement their roles at the center of their communities. Library social work will allow libraries to continue to connect and counsel patrons as they have always done but to a greater degree.