Public Libraries: More than Just a Building Full of Books

By: Mary Beth Meier

When I was a sophomore in high school, I began working part-time at my town library in Connecticut and shortly after beginning college in Washington, DC, I accepted a student job at my campus library. Today, I continue to work in a public library in Texas while studying for my master’s degree. My experience working in both urban and suburban public libraries far exceeds my experience in social service agencies, but throughout these eight years, I witnessed a wide variety of library services similarly empower at-risk patrons. Through this experience, I recognize a visible link between the social work and library science professions, but this link continues to be a missing element in social work practice and research.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a library as “a place in which literacy, musical, artistic, or reference materials are kept for use but not for sale.” Libraries, however, go beyond this definition to provide programs and outreach services that promote early literacy and lifelong learning. These capacity building programs and outreach services particularly benefit traditionally marginalized populations, such as the elderly, young children, homeless, adolescents, refugees, or immigrants. Unlike social work, however, library programs and outreach services do not utilize the evidence-based process to incorporate best available research evidence, professional expertise, and patron values/preferences when making decisions.

Libraries already exist as a natural element of community life that benefit all its members, whether you are a stay-at-home mom bringing your three children to story time, a recent immigrant taking English Language Acquisition classes, or the starting high school quarterback studying for your physics test. This free and accessible learning environment supports diverse groups of people already motivated to enhance existing skills, engage with other community members, and learn about additional resources. Library programs and outreach services adequately respond to communities’ evolving and diverse needs, but yet, social work practice often neglects to incorporate this existing community strength in their delivery of services.

Ultimately, the social work and library science professions both aim to strengthen our communities through their provision of services and access to resources. The link between the social work and library science professions, although under-explored and under-utilized, proves imperative to promoting community well being. Rather than creating and funding separate services and outreach programs that effect the same results, public libraries and social service agencies should strategically partner to enhance their service delivery. Social work practice and research will truly benefit from the exploration of this essential, but often missing, element in our mission to achieving social justice.

 

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