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Monday, June 11

Public Library Social Work: An Emerging Field

Justine Janis, LCSW

When you hear the word “interdisciplinary” as applied to social work, you may think of collaboration with doctors, nurses, or other professionals in the medical field. Now social workers are working with a unique partner—the public library. Nationally, there are already 30 public libraries that have added social workers to their team. In Illinois, there are three libraries that have full-time social workers available to library patrons and staff for support. Addison Public Library hired its first social worker in 2015, Oak Park Public Library (OPPL) in 2016, and Evanston Public Library (EPL) followed in 2017. With numerous budget cuts to social services programs over the years, public libraries are encountering more individuals experiencing mental illness, homelessness, and poverty. Librarians are often ill-equipped to handle the increasing volume of need arising in their communities.

Social workers in libraries bring a holistic approach to helping connect patrons to community resources such as housing, mental health, and employment services. Regardless of race, gender, immigration status, or age, the library welcomes you. The public library is considered to be a safe place in the community. Libraries are also a neutral, stigma-free zone. The services are free, and we do not collect much information. People really gravitate towards the informal nature of library-based social services.

I am the first full-time social worker to serve at the EPL and have been there for a year and a half. When I started, it was difficult to know what my role was and what I should be doing. Luckily for me, Rob Simmons had been running the social work program in OPPL for a year already, so I was able to consult with him for guidance. Rob states, “Initially, I was surprised at the volume of patrons that required social services. How dependent vulnerable people in the area are on public libraries for various types of support.”

Social work programs at EPL and OPPL are similar in that we employ a referral-based model to help connect patrons to long-term resources. We are available to help manage any mental health crisis that may occur at the library, and we also participate in providing outreach to individuals in the library that are experiencing homelessness. For so many of our clients who distrust various social service institutions, we provide consistency and accessibility to services in an environment that may feel more neutral. We are able to take the time to build rapport and earn trust so that eventually we can facilitate a warm handoff to a partnering agency. I’d like to think that we are somehow reaching people who might have slipped through the cracks. We also encounter individuals who have fallen on hard times and have no idea on how to access food stamps, Medicaid, or rental assistance. Between the knowledge base of social workers and the knowledge base of librarians, we hold a powerful collection of helpful information!

Both EPL and OPPL also have dedicated teen spaces, so we are also providing supportive services to youth. At EPL we recently hosted a teen health resource fair, focusing on where they can access medical and mental health care and information regarding parental consent. I also co-facilitated a three-day girls empowerment workshop for fourth and fifth graders. I have also encountered homeless youth and have been able to connect them to appropriate services in the community. Library social workers encounter a little bit of everything!

Another interesting aspect of our role is providing trainings and consultation for librarians. Most recently, I lead a training for EPL staff on de-escalation and how to appropriately document incidents that occur at the library. I have also facilitated trainings on assertive communication, working with patrons on the autism spectrum, and homelessness/mental illness. A survey of EPL library staff found that 84% of library staff felt more equipped to work with the public since the start of the social work program. Rob Simmons recently led a workshop for public librarians on working with homeless patrons. It covered how to advocate for this population and how to develop policies that do not alienate this group. For example they no longer have a rule about sleeping in the library, a rule that primarily targets the homeless population. Rob states, “You don’t wake a 6-month-old taking a nap. Why do you wake an adult?”

One of the most challenging parts of “library social work” is the newness that can make the work isolating. In a given institution, we are likely the only social worker among a sea of librarians and others performing more traditional functions of library work. Simmons states, “This new innovative social-work approach is rewarding but very challenging because of the novelty attached to it. It truly takes an interdisciplinary approach to integrate a social-services model into a public library system; and you need a lot of organizational and community support to be successful.” There is a small national network of library social workers (about 30) where we participate on a quarterly call to help us share information and strategies that are unique to our role. I am working with the NASW-Illinois Chapter to help formalize a shared interest group for library social workers to help us keep to our social work roots and stay connected to our mission.

Since I started over a year ago the national number of the positions has almost doubled. I feel very lucky to be at the forefront of this exciting new area of social work. Make sure you check with your local library to see if there are plans to have a social worker! It is a unique setting in which we can bring our skills to assist a wide range of people in the community.

If you are interested in getting involved in a shared interest group focused on library social work, click here.


Justine Janis, LCSW, graduated with her MSW from Washington University in St. Louis. She is a former Psychosocial Recovery Fellow at the VHA in West Haven, CT, and currently works at Presence Behavioral Health. She is the first full-time social worker at Evanston Public Library in Evanston, Illinois, and leads a national Library Social Work consultation call. Justine specializes in working with serious mental illness and trauma in community-based settings. She lives in Chicago with her husband, cat (Pickles) and rabbit (Butters).

Posted on 06/11/18 at 03:05 PM

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