The field of social work is increasingly expanding to meet community needs wherever they are. In the Stevens Point community, the Portage County Public Library is charting its own course in the new realm of library social work, in partnership with UW-Stevens Point.
The library is connecting patrons with resources well beyond the scope of reading materials. A new library social work intern from UW-Stevens Point is on site twice a week to serve as an advocate in a variety of social and mental health concerns community members may face.
Senior Liam Enright, a sociology and social work major who will graduate in May, is developing the position as needs arise. Some days, he makes calls on behalf of patrons or helps them fill out paperwork. He does research to answer questions, such as what are the options for people experiencing homelessness? In other instances, he relies on his intuition when that serves the situation.
“Library social work is so new, it’s exciting to figure out what it will mean for this community,” said Enright, Verona.
Enright’s field supervisor is Jess Bowers, a sociology and social work associate professor. She began looking into the stressed library system and sent a survey to 260 staff across the state’s South Central Library System. It became clear that these 65 libraries had similar challenges.
“Librarians need more assistance meeting the needs of some patrons with more complex issues and barriers,” Bowers said.
Library staff responding to the survey reported a host of unmet psychosocial needs in their libraries. Patrons often reached out with transportation needs, questions about government benefits, requests for job hunting guidance and dozens of other concerns, well beyond finding items from library collections.
Bowers and Portage County Public Library Director Larry Oathout agreed to partner to provide personnel trained in working with and supporting people with social services. There was no model to follow for implementing a successful social work program at the library, but Enright applied anyway.
“He is the trailblazer. We needed someone to help us find out exactly what we need to support our community,” said Oathout.
The Portage County Library and branches have the capacity to serve nearly 70,000 residents. Oathout said usage is trending up after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Enright is evaluating how he can be most effective and when it might be valuable to involve other community partners to serve the patrons. He is gathering a comprehensive listing of community resources and communicating with social work providers in the area.
The library environment gives Enright experience with the types of obstacles he will routinely face in a social work career, advocating for others, he said. “I can touch on mental health. There are so many variables I can get tangible experiences in.”
Oathout said he is pleased to support and further develop the intern role for those who depend on the library. He looks forward to working with UW-Stevens Point in placing future interns who have a passion for social work.
View other library-social work collaborations and learn more at the Whole Person Librarianship map.