Social Workers in the Library

B. Coughlin

Interning at the Encinitas Library so far has been an extraordinary experience. The library staff have been welcoming and helpful from day one. It has truly been an inclusive experience and an eye opener. Throw out any assumptions you may have about libraries or the typical librarian. As I have learned pretty early on, libraries are now on the front line of engaging communities. All around the United States, libraries are starting to offer social services to patrons from the convenience and safety of a familiar location. The famous American industrialist Andrew Carnegie said it best when he stated “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”

It is with this ideal in mind that I have been assigned the task of creating a pilot program to bring social services to the patrons of the Encinitas Library. Social Workers in the Library is a program that will bring in volunteer social workers to assist library patrons in finding and connecting to social services on a biweekly basis. This program is based on a similar program (of the same name) that has been successfully implemented in San José and just celebrated its fifth anniversary last month. Because the Consensus Organizing Center was able to arrange a visit, I was lucky enough to be able to travel to San José in October to see their program in action. I was invited to sit in with the volunteer social workers as they met with various library patrons and dispensed advice and referrals. In several of the cases, I was consulted as well and was able to add my input to the conversation as we all worked collaboratively to come up with solutions to patrons’ problems.

When I arrived back home, I was able to take a lot of what I learned in San José and apply it to what we were working on in Encinitas. One of the most important aspects I wanted to incorporate was a way of bridging relationships between library staff, social workers, and community members to build social capital. This idea of directly engaging with community members before the program was created culminated with Coffee & Conversation, a monthly event we are hosting in the Library’s big entertainment room. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this room is filled with local art and photography, and is the perfect location to hold deliberate dialogue with community members; it allows them to directly communicate with us, helping the process of creating and delivering services in a meaningful way.

Because the library staff is already a part of the community, they are a less threatening conduit to introduce social workers into the context of library resources. Library staff are in a position to help community members, yet they are not well trained to address the specific and often complex needs of certain groups of people. Over the last three months, a phrase I’ve often encountered both in person and through research is “We want to help, but we’re not social workers.” Because libraries have a lack of barriers to members and the determination to be welcoming to everyone reinforces why they are the perfect places to offer social services to community members. In Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Robert Putnam says it best: “No longer a passive repository of books and information or an outpost of culture, quiet, and decorum in a noisy world, the new library is an active and responsive part of the community and an agent of change.” It is my hope and my goal that Social Workers in the Library will succeed at doing just that. Our program is set to roll out in early Spring of 2015.

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