Time for a New Position in the Academic Library? | From the Bell Tower

As academic libraries open their doors to the public, they’ll experience some of the same challenges as public libraries. Should we follow their lead when it comes to staff social workers?

Steven Bell head shotAs academic libraries open their doors to the public, they’ll experience some of the same challenges as public libraries. Should we follow their lead when it comes to staff social workers?

Non-librarian professional roles in academic libraries have expanded in the past few years. Growth in computing and instructional technology positions would likely top the list, but other functional specialists with knowledge of publishing, digital scholarship, and data science are becoming more commonplace. New positions in higher education are hard to come by, so library leaders face tough decisions when choosing between more traditional librarian positions and non-librarians who can add new, in-demand skills that add value for our library customers. Increasingly, what’s in demand is more than just technical expertise. As students report higher levels of stress, anxiety, and mental health challenges, and academic libraries increasingly open to the general public, might it be time for academic libraries to offer new services in response to a growing need for social service support?



Academic libraries have more in common with public libraries these days. In addition to offering leisure reading collections, access to audiobooks, popular films and television programs streamed or on DVD, and diversified programming for nontraditional, non-student groups, we are opening our collections to neighboring communities as well as offering computer and internet access. Academic librarians are excited to expand beyond the boundaries of traditional services and users, but in doing so we may experience some of the same challenges public libraries face. That means occasional encounters with those suffering mental health, addiction, or other behavioral problems. Just as we look to public libraries for good service ideas, academic librarians can also learn how public libraries are coping and providing social support where it’s needed. What we’ll find is that more of them are engaging the services of social workers to provide a skill set that librarians lack.



Stories about librarians providing Narcan make the news, but there are innumerable other incidents in libraries, mostly public, that require types of intervention that librarians are ill-prepared to deliver. Be it behavioral outbursts that seriously disrupt library services, disputes that lead to violence, or concerns about how to help the homeless and hungry, librarians are facing challenges unlike any they were introduced to in their LIS programs. I learned from the librarian liaison to our social work program that the Free Library of Philadelphia now has two social workers on contract to travel to branches in need of support. These professionals are trained to work closely with individuals in need of social support systems, and have the expert knowledge of community resources needed to provide the appropriate level of assistance. We can likely agree that this approach is far more humane than punitive efforts to punish and ban users from a public space to which they are entitled. As many academic libraries open up to the community and invite the public to use resources and attend programming, they are likely to more often encounter the kinds of difficult situations with which public libraries have long contended. What resources could academic libraries draw on to equip themselves to respond to challenges that require the skills and knowledge that social workers bring to the table?



To my knowledge there are no college or university libraries that employ a dedicated full- or part-time social worker. Many of these libraries may be located in suburban or rural areas where they rarely experience the conditions that generate the problems that social workers are adept at solving. Yet, as the opioid crisis demonstrates, few if any American communities, no matter how suburban or rural, are immune from the disintegration of our social fabric. Other libraries are in colleges or universities large enough to support a mental wellness or crisis team that addresses these issues, which may well include a staff member or instructor with social work experience. At my own institution we have such a group, the CARE Team, that the library can use. Our police officers also have the capacity to work with and make referrals to social service organizations. But given the increase in the need for these types of support, it may now make sense for academic libraries to provide an in-house service.



While no one should expect a sudden influx of social workers into the academic library workforce, for the few that might seriously consider it there are public libraries demonstrating the good results that social workers provide. At a 2018 Public Library Association preconference, the first public library in America to add a full-time social worker, San Francisco Public Library, discussed the importance of allowing a social worker to build relationships with library staff and become a part of the organization. That can take the form of workshops on homelessness and mental illness, creating internships for graduate-level social work students, and serving as a link to the social service community. For those academic libraries that do step into this arena, Lisa Peet of Library Journal writes that clear and explicit polices for inappropriate behavior must be flexible enough to accommodate those suffering from mental illness. Social workers have the training and skill to know what those accommodations are. They can, for example, focus on the individual and the help needed, rather than dealing only with the inappropriate behavior. Peet also points to the Denver Public Library, and its Peer Navigator program that provides trained peer counselors who have experienced homelessness or mental health issues.



If they have yet to do so, academic librarians should consider how a social worker could fit into their organization and what they could do to support, rather than banish, those in need of social services. At a minimum they should be fully aware of what support services their college or university is already prepared to deliver. Is there a crisis team? Do the campus police have an officer dedicated to working with community support services? Who on the library staff is responsible for connecting to and collaborating with these institutional colleagues? The good news is that welcoming the public into our libraries performs a valuable service for the community. It fits with our ethos of—and commitment to—openness and unfettered access to information. That professional philosophy may sometimes open the door to unanticipated cascading consequences. Given the models we can study and the partnerships we can build now, there’s little reason to lack preparation for social support in our academic libraries.

Author Image
Steven Bell

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing