In my introduction to library and information science class last fall, we came across mention of the San Francisco Public Library’s social services provisions and discussed the public service nature of librarianship as well as the question of whether library science students should have some training in social work. The local public radio station KALW recently did a story on the SF Public Library’s programs to help the homeless. (On a side note, I think a related topic of discussion in that class was the San Jose Public Library and San Jose State University Library’s shared building, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. This shared space redefines the boundaries of public and academic libraries and how librarians reach out to the varying types of patrons in those libraries.)
At the time, I filed away this little bit of information, but the idea of librarianship’s overlap with social work surfaced again briefly in the spring semester when I interviewed two teen services librarians for a youth services class. Both of them told me that one of the things they understood to be most important about their job working in the central downtown location of a large, urban public library system was that they needed to connect with the teens well and to build trust with them. They also noted that the most common reference questions they receive, by far, were ones related to obtaining shelter, free meals, and other resources that homeless and precariously housed youth need.
Neither of the teen services librarians encountered any coursework that prepared them for this aspect of their jobs, and perhaps the ability to empathize and connect is not something that can be taught in the library school curriculum. However, would optional coursework related to providing social services and understanding the difficulties of people living in poverty not help aspiring public librarians to think more conscientiously about this aspect of their jobs?
For MLIS students interested in working with patrons in public libraries, how can we foster librarianship’s core values of providing access, supporting literacy, championing democracy and the public good, and developing a sense of social responsibility in our education? What skills and experiences might we seek to gain to help with pursuing a public service career?
Previous posts in our Hack Your Program series also note that some schools have joint MLIS and MSW (master’s of social work) programs, including Dominican University and the University of Michigan. Regardless of dual degree programs, though, many MLIS programs allow one or two courses taken in a related field to count towards your MLIS degree. Hacker Rebecca also noted in a post on hacking the library school application that she pursued a social work career before returning to school for an MLIS degree. I would love to hear from readers about their own experiences with negotiating librarianship and public needs.
On a slight tangent, for those of you interested in a more philosophical, metadisciplinary discussion of librarianship, please check out Emily Ford’s new article “What do we do and why do we do it?”, a thoughtful argument for why librarians need to take a step back to articulate a philosophy of what we do in order to understand our work better.