The Evolution of Library Social Work

May 6, 2024

Libraries are gateways to accessing care, strengthening communities, and meeting people where they are

By Heather Rose Artushin, LISW-CP

Now more than ever, libraries are much more than book depositories. They are living, breathing community centers, filled with people who have psychosocial needs – people who could benefit from the support of a social worker.

“After the pandemic, libraries saw a huge increase in people with poverty, housing needs, food insecurity, and mental and behavioral health problems who needed extra support,” explained Beth Wahler, Ph.D., MSW, a consultant who runs Social Work Consulting Services for Libraries. There has also been a notable increase in the number of incidents of harassment and protests that occur at libraries, whether it be in opposition to library events or collections, and many libraries have begun collaborating with other professionals to be prepared to respond to situations as they arise.

The library is an important place where social workers can connect with people in the community in need of support.

The first library social worker assumed the role in 2009, and for the next decade the field remained primarily limited to large, urban libraries focused on supporting unhoused patrons. Then, in 2020, the libraries shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the doors finally re-opened, the need for library social workers became increasingly apparent to library staff across the country and around the world.

Just as the psychosocial needs of library patrons have rapidly increased since the pandemic, funding has been simultaneously cut from many of the organizations that would help address those needs, leaving libraries as one of the only remaining free, public places where people can go to access resources that might help their situation.

“Libraries are a community hub,” Dr. Wahler shared. “They have been front and center of their communities, and people feel comfortable at the library – there’s no stigma associated with visiting the library as there would be visiting a mental health or substance use facility.” Patrons who come to the library with complex needs might otherwise be falling through the cracks, making the library an important place where social workers can connect with people in the community in need of support.

What is unique about library social work is that it is neither macro nor micro – it is a generalist role where social workers can fluidly move between both ways of working with people. What a library social worker does daily varies greatly depending on placement and community context. “Most of the time their role is to help connect people with existing resources or to be part of the community conversation about what resources are missing, or if there are gaps,” said Dr. Wahler. “They are working with individuals who have lots of needs and using their micro level skills to assess people’s needs and connect them to resources, as well as macro skills to work collaboratively in the community.”

While a small percentage of library social workers provide clinical mental health services, most provide resource connection and service coordination. In some libraries, social workers have been recruited to provide internal support to staff who are dealing with increased job-related stress and responsibility. “Training [offered by social workers] can increase staff capacity to de-escalate situations that arise, or work with people who are in crisis,” offered Dr. Wahler. “Some social workers do library policy analysis, looking at how different groups might be disproportionately impacted by policies, to make it as equitable as possible for everybody. Some do group programming, host housing clinics, or conduct mental health sessions to reduce stigma. Their duties reflect the biggest unmet needs in the surrounding community.”

Social work programs are beginning to offer some specialized training in library social work, and Dr. Wahler believes universities will continue to grow library social work offerings as the field expands. A former professor and director of a university social work program, Dr. Wahler was approached by an urban library about nine years ago, asking for practicum students. “My previous work had been with people who were unhoused, faced substance use problems, and mental health problems, which were the same things the library needed help with,” she shared. After conducting a needs assessment with staff and patrons, she piloted a program with social work students in the library and gathered data to help justify creating a full-time social work position.

Soon, libraries started approaching Dr. Wahler from all over the world, and a little over two years ago she ventured out on her own to lead a consulting business where she helps libraries build social work programs of their own.

Her book, “Creating a Person-Centered Library: Best Practices for Supporting High-Needs Patrons (Bloomsbury Libraries Unlimited; 2023),” which she co-authored with Sarah Johnson, MLIS, LMSW, Adjunct Lecturer at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois, offers strategies for libraries to better support high-needs patrons, including organizational and leadership strategies to support staff.

Social workers can advocate for funding for an in-house social worker in their local library, negotiate a collaboration between their agency and their library where social workers can visit regularly to meet potential clients where they’re at, or even offer to supervise a social work practicum student placed in a library where funding is limited. Libraries are the ultimate gateways to accessing care, strengthening communities, and meeting people where they are.

Ways Social Workers Can Collaborate with their Local Library

  • Assisting with a needs assessment to identify staff and patron needs
  • Facilitating programming for patrons on common psychosocial needs and community resources (for example, a public program about how to recognize if you or someone you love might have a mental health problem and what to do/where to contact if you need help)
  • Providing staff training on working with people in crisis, community resources for specific populations served at that library, setting healthy boundaries, self-care strategies, preventing escalation, or de-escalation
  • Offering to help build connections between the library and other relevant community partners who might use space at the library for outreach or to provide services.
  • Hosting a resource fair to bring in community partners to meet with the public and provide information about their services
  • Looking for potential funding sources for new programming/services
  • Holding office hours at the library on behalf of their agency
  • Supervising a social work student intern at the library
  • Assisting patrons with applying for public benefits, creating resumes, or applying for jobs
  • Developing resource lists or guides for your local community
  • Advocating with local legislators on behalf of the library (for adequate funding and protecting the right to intellectual/information freedom)

Learn more about Dr. Beth Wahler’s work by visiting her website


Heather Rose Artushin

Heather Rose Artushin, LISW-CP is on a mission to make a difference, one word at a time. Learn more at