Hiring Social Workers in Public Libraries

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What would it look like if a Public Library hired a part-time social worker to help patrons deal with some of their everyday life issues that may come up while visiting the library? I see the potential benefits but can imagine a lot of complications.


The New York State Education Department’s Office of the Professions, which oversees the licensure of social workers, describes social work this way:[1]

Social work is a profession that helps individuals, families, and groups change behaviors, emotions, attitudes, relationships, and social conditions to restore and enhance their capacity to meet their personal and social needs.

Social workers are trained to provide a variety of services, ranging from psychotherapy to the administration of health and welfare programs. They work with human development and behavior, including the social, economic, and cultural systems in which people function.

Sounds like a person who would be handy to have in not only a library, but perhaps in line at the grocery store, in a public park, and sitting next to you at a football game, right?

So, what would it look like (from the legal perspective) for a social worker to be embedded to work in a library?

Broadly speaking, there are three ways a social worker could offer services within a library or other not-for-profit/educational setting. Each way has its own legal and practical considerations.

The first way is for the library to employ the social worker. This would require the library to implement specific policies, resources, and insurance coverage (in other words, careful planning a budgeting), but it is doable.

The second way is for the library to contract with a social worker or agency to offer their services at the library. This would require less policy development and insurance coverage but would also require careful budgeting and a very thorough contract.

The third way would be for the library to cooperate with local departments of health and county social services to explore having professionals from the government agency on site.  In many ways, this would look like the “contract” option, but the agreement would likely be able to be far less formal.

For a variety of reasons, option #3 may often be the easiest, since there is already a lot of infrastructure in place for a county agency to support its local library or library system (the “insurance” part of things will be much simpler). That said, #2 is also fairly simple, so long as the social worker/agency can provide the required insurance coverage, and the library and provider can agree on a contract.

And option #1—the employment option—is not impossible. It just brings the biggest up-front challenges: develop a job description, policies, procedures, and insurance to support the position and all of its record-keeping and other ethical/professional obligations, and to ensure there is a firewall between the social worker’s records and other library records.

For a library that wants to explore this, it would be good to conduct a brainstorming session about what specific benefits the library would want to get from it and how they relate to the library’s plan of service.

For example: is the primary purpose so frontline staff can immediately refer patrons who may be in distress to a nearby resource for immediate assistance? Or is it so the social worker can offer community workshops and collaborate with staff on healthy programming? Once the primary goals and add-ons are determined, a job description/business plan (for option #1) or request for proposals (for option #2) could be developed to explore making it happen; the documents would address the legal/regulatory/risk factors (like ethics and how client records are kept, since they wouldn’t be “library records”).

The good news is that in 2024 there are actual, living models out there for these approaches!  While we didn’t delve too deeply, here are some links to New York libraries with social workers on site or in affiliation:

Baldwin Public Library

Brooklyn Public Library

Emma S. Clark Memorial Library

Farmingdale Public Library

Lindenhurst Memorial Library

Middle Country Public Library

New York Public Library


Thank you for a great question!


[1] https://www.op.nysed.gov/professions/licensed-master-social-worker/consumer-information


Public Libraries, Social Work, Employment, Contracts, Ethics