Redefining Public Librarians as Research-Oriented Social Workers: Y/N?

By brookemorrison

The library landscape changes in accordance with the community it serves—more prosperous communities can afford nicer facilities, while those with less funding might house out-of-date technologies, a smaller staff, and surroundings that aren’t quite as kempt. The latter are characteristics of the types of environments fostering biases in the titular “Street Level Bureaucrats” outlined in Michael Lipsky’s 1969 study for the Institute on Poverty Research. Though the study was conducted over forty years ago, it is applicable in todays’ public libraries, where librarians are comparable to the Street Level Bureaucrats outline within the study. In fact, I would argue that the comparison is spot-on:

A Street-level Bureaucrat is defined as a public employee whose work is characterized by the following three conditions:

1. He is called upon to interact constantly with citizens in the regular course of his job.

2. Although he works within a bureaucratie structure, his independenee on the job is fairly extensive.One component of this independenee is discretion in making decisions; but independence in job performance is not Iimited to discretion. The attitude and general approach of a Street-Ievel Bureaucrat toward his client may affect his client significantly. These considerations are broader than the term discretion suggests. 

3. Tbe potential impact on citizens with whom he deals is fairly extensive.

(Lipsky 2)

(Right?) For the sake of this post let’s agree that there are at least a few—if not an overwhelming number of—similarities between the Street-Level Bureaucrat and the public librarian (specifically). Lipsky studies a few of the problems facing SLB’s, namely those “that arise from lack of organizational and personal resources, physical and psychological threat, and conflicting and ambiguous role expectations,”(MANGUEL web) succinctly identifying what happen to be some of the most pertinent causes of identity crisis in contemporary public librarianship.

Why does one become a public librarian? A common response is that it’s incidental to a love of reading, or an inspirational hometown librarian. But what does a librarian end up being— a mother figure? A social worker? A jaded burnout? As the role of librarian grows and changes, how can they adapt to serve a changing patronage that increasingly includes, for example, the homeless population, bringing a whole new set of responsibilities to the position? And how do we prep librarians for these new responsibilities?


Street Card from Baltimore County Public Library website


As Alberto Manguel recently wrote in the New York Times, “libraries have become largely social centers. Most libraries today are used less to borrow books than to seek protection from harsh weather and to find jobs online”(MANGUEL web). Many of these are homeless patrons utilizing resources unavailable outside of a library. This fact necessitates a response from the library community. The American Library Association has a growing list of homeless-oriented library programs implemented across the country. The scope ranges wildly in what these programs offer; the Baltimore County Public Library’s  “Street Card” program, is listed— essentially just a card with information pertaining to available assistance with employment, food, emergencies, health, legal issues, and shelter, among other things (ALA web). This seems a small, painless implementation, but with greater implications— these cards are a response to the daily experience of the librarian, which involves interaction with a population that has not been adequately served by the right institutions (homeless shelters, etc.) and are now seeking to use the library in a different manner than most librarians would, I’m sure, ideally imagine.

The programs get more involved throughout the list: public librarians in Denver actually lead off-site visits to shelters for homeless and low-income women to give lessons on interviewing techniques, technology skills, and provide free bus tokens and library cards. Even more radically, San Francisco Public Library formed a homeless and poverty outreach with the city’s Department of Public Health and hired the nation’s first full-time, in-house social worker. The library recruits formerly homeless patrons to assist with the outreach program, and the program is lead by a psychiatrist!

In light of this, is it enough to equip public librarians with research skills? Should Social work be a part of the education of the public librarian? Perhaps. As the role of librarian and that of social worker are becoming increasingly inextricable in certain library environments, the only course of action can be to prepare these currently ill-equipped Street-Level Bureaucrats by teaching them the skills required to navigate their workspace.

Manguel has different beliefs, saying “a library is not a homeless shelter (at the St. Agnes library in New York, I witnessed a librarian explaining to a customer why she could not sleep on the floor), a nursery or a fun fair (the Seneca East Public Library in Attica, Ohio, offers pajama parties), or a prime provider of social support and medical care (which American librarians today nonetheless routinely give)” (MANGUEL web). He has a point, but why deny the fact that libraries no longer serve simply as havens for books and research? Why not equip librarians with more specific social-work skills that, coupled with their librarian skills, can help them to truly impact and better the communities that they serve?


Sources Cited

Lipsky, Michael. “Toward A Theory of Street-Level Bureaucrats.” Institute for Research on Poverty. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1969.

Manguel, Alberto. “Reinventing the Library.” New York Times 23 Oct 2015. Web. <>

“Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library Engagement.” American Library Association. Web. Accessed 27 Oct 2015. <> 

The following two tabs change content below.

Comments are closed.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License

WordPress theme based on Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.