Libraries and Public Service

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.)

Leah is the only full-time social worker working in the San Francisco Public Library

Illustration by Wendy McNaughton

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.

Charles was formerly homeless and made use of San Francisco's Public Library.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton.

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.

Categories: Big Picture

22 replies

  1. SLIS students and library employees would greatly benefit from some sort of social service or outreach training. When I worked for a large public libary serving a downtown population, my co-workers and I often felt we were ill equiped to assist certain patrons. It would have been great to at least receive information on local resources during staff training days. For most libraries, budgetary contraints would prevent anything more formalized or the hiring of a social worker.

    Currently, I’m employed at a career college and am experiencing the same issues. Between full-time grad school and full-time work, I don’t have a lot of time to supplement my studies. However, I hope to complete independent study and a thesis in order to teach myself what I feel I’m lacking. Luckily, where I work has a Criminal Justice program. Our faculty has been an excellent resource.

    Just an aside: this article ( might be of interest to you.


    • Wow that’s a fascinating program–the human library. I’d not heard of it before. Thanks for sharing! I especially like the idea of broadening library services in directions that are not just about media consumption and entertainment. This program also aids in reinforcing the idea that libraries are community spaces and centered around the idea of facilitating knowledge creation and communication.


  2. Wow, that is such a great idea! When I interviewed for a public library position I brought up my experience as a Resident Assistant at my undergrad university. A small part of the RA job is being kind of like a social worker. I definitely see the connection with that sort of training (being a resource, knowing signs for certain issues, and being able to target programs to certain groups that would benefit from library resources).

    It would be great to see elective course options within MLIS programs to target this kind of training. I think it ultimately depends on what type of library one is focused on though. If one is aiming at corporate or museum libraries it probably isn’t as relevant. But I definitely agree for those considering school or public librarianship, it would strengthen their educate and bring success to their future positions.


    • That’s a thoughtful parallel between RA work and social work.

      I wonder if instilling a sense of public service generally for all aspiring library and information professionals is valuable, though, not just for school and public librarians. Arguably, the values of librarianship should apply across the board, no matter what institutions we work in or what specific tasks we perform…


      • I think the type of public service is what matters the most when trying to apply it to all aspiring librarians. Social work public service just isn’t applicable in every library or information position as it is for public of school librarians.

        A former philosophy professor let me know that his department strongly considers if job candidates volunteer in their extra time. If social work doesn’t apply to a type of librarian, perhaps another type of public service or volunteering would be useful.


  3. I very rarely think that adding coursework is a good idea. Instead, I’d like to see programs really integrate the theory of social and public services into already-existing curriculum. The fact that information science is a social service-oriented discipline should act as a framework to all our other courses; for instance, when we take an organizing information course, we should simultaneously discuss how different groups of people may need/want information displayed or organized differently.

    This framework should just be a learning outcome for all of our courses, I think. I can’t think of a single class I took that wouldn’t have benefitted from an ongoing discussion of public or social service theories.


    • Oh yes. I agree that more (required) coursework is generally not the best approach. I would clarify that I’m not really suggesting that librarians should train as social workers, but rather that librarians might engage the public service aspect of the profession deliberately from library school on…. Your way of framing the issue around integrating public and social service theories across the board is very useful.


  4. Thanks for the shout out about my article. One of the commenters on my article mentioned a piece she had written on autonomy and libraries, more explicitly, about the caretaker role that libraries and librarians have. I’m not sure yet how I feel about that argument, but I can certainly see where this fits in nicely with that philosophy.

    Her article is here.


    • I’ll have to read that article!

      I had just wrapped up this post when I read yours on a philosophy of librarianship, and I almost wanted to go back and reframe my discussion completely in light of considering a philosophy of the field as encompassing a public service component.


  5. Hi Paul! This is exactly something I’ve been grappling with during my Practicum this summer as I led a book club for Somali teen girls. Going into it, there seemed to be potential need for social work involvement, so I asked a friend of mine who is a social worker to co-lead the club with me. The result for me has been an increased awareness of the need for good relationship-building as a foundation for the more sensitive work we do, including cross-cultural outreach and service to at-risk patrons. And I agree that this is something that hasn’t been explicitly addressed in the classes I’ve taken, and I’d like to see us borrow more from social work to build those skills. One response I got in a discussion about this was that we do learn in class about the growing importance of outreach and embedded librarianship (the book club was at a community center, not in the library), but I think it’s crucial to understand there’s a difference between the tools of outreach (bringing a book club kit to the teens in situ) and the skills of relationship-building (asking open questions, listening attentively, respecting beliefs that may be different from our own). A certain Professor Emeritus we both know is interested in continuing this discussion, so there may be some room to grow this in our curriculum.


  6. Great subject. Students hoping to go into public library careers should absolutely understand the social service aspect. You may be interested in this article: ( about the Tucson Public Library hiring a public health nurse as library staff. So inventive and helpful. The “library nurse” is helping all kinds of people from latch-key kids to the homeless- all of whom use the library as a gathering place. This is another fine example of the library as a positive, relevant, and welcoming public space.


    • Oh! Thanks for the article. Having a nurse on staff at a library is quite an interesting idea. I think it helps contribute to the creation of the library space as one about the public good rather than about individual consumption of entertainment!


  7. Great post over a very timely topic! (sidenote: LOVE the illustrations) My first semester in library school I wrote a paper over how libraries can incorporate themselves better into homeless outreach. Before coming into the field, I spent two years working with nonprofit agencies focused on literacy and homelessness & there have been so many overlaps. I help patrons on a regular basis to use the computers to apply for jobs, unemployment, social services, and also to get GED practice. Having some experience or education in the social services is a definite must for those who are in public libraries.


    • Hi Desiree… Thanks for the comment. Sorry I seem to have missed it way back in August. I’m revisiting this post since I’m working with a friend on a project to explore the connections between librarianship and social work. Let me know if you’re interested in joining us! (The plan is currently to run a blog on the topic.)


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