In recent years, the role of libraries in our communities has changed significantly. Today’s library-goers visit for any number of reasons: to use a computer, take a tutoring session, attend a story time, join a yoga class, or just to be somewhere safe. Library staff are trusted fixtures in their communities and, as such, receive patron questions that go well beyond the typical reference inquiry. Library staff assist people in finding housing, social and mental health services, completing applications online, and finding their closest food bank. In these instances, staff have become quasi-social workers. However, library workers are not often trained in skills that are typically more in keeping with social work: conflict resolution, trauma-informed care, crisis management.
If social workers can be placed within the library, there is an opportunity to address a much broader spectrum of community needs. Unlike librarians, social workers have the necessary training to manage the complex needs of library patrons that go beyond the scope of information services. By introducing social workers into the library environment, we add an additional layer of available services in an already trusted space and are better able to address community needs that might otherwise go unmet.
Responding to member library requests, in 2019 ACLA began investigating library service models that incorporate the expertise of social work professionals. Pieces of the puzzle fell into place with the connection provided by Tracy Soska, Professor Emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and ACLA Trustee. With this connection, ACLA implemented a pilot project connecting students in the Pitt Master of Social Work (MSW) program with ACLA libraries to complete their required field placement. The program has been formalized as the Library Social Work Fellowship.
The first cohort of three interns were placed in ACLA libraries for 16 hours per week over the 2019/2020 fall and spring terms. Students worked with their libraries to identify and address areas of need specific to the communities they serve. Students provided direct referral services to patrons, held training for library staff, created local resource guides, and strengthened library relationships with local service agencies. Throughout, students were overseen by a library site supervisor and field supervisor.
The second cohort of five students built off the strong foundation laid in the first year. Unsurprisingly, field placements in the 2020/2021 year looked a lot different for students than the previous cohort. Despite myriad challenges and some libraries remaining closed to in-person service, students adapted to the constraints and provided invaluable support for patrons and library staff. Social work students compiled timely information on the COVID-19 pandemic, continuously updated community vaccine guides, assisted patrons in accessing pandemic relief opportunities, held one-on-one referral hours, and more. If there were ever a time for libraries to have social resources specialists in-house, the COVID-19 crisis was it.
The third cohort was the biggest yet, with eight students at nine library sites. This year’s library social work interns have performed a variety of roles at their public library internship site, including creating a guide to college scholarships for high school students at CLP – Homewood, bringing a therapy dog to Carnegie Free Library of Swissvale, distributing resources on affordable housing at CLP – East Liberty, hosting an informational program on Medicare at Monroeville Public Library, and more.
In 2022, due to ongoing success and continued expansion, ACLA brought on a dedicated staff member to manage the program. Katrina Mink, BSW/MSW, now serves as Coordinator for the Social Work in Libraries program, supporting ACLA libraries in a broad range of social service goals and providing field instruction for all Student Fellows.