Ayoung Yoon, associate professor of library science at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indianapolis has been awarded a new three-year IMLS grant of $498,000, titled, “Developing a Social Service Model I Rural Libraries.”
Yoon and Co-PI Michin Hong plan to develop a social service prototype for rural libraries based on multistep studies to explore rural communities’ social needs and libraries’ current practices. This project will provide a new way of serving rural communities for social work practitioners and for library information science education by broadening the role of library and information professionals in social services, identifying the skills and knowledge to perform this new role.
The study fills the gap in existing research and practice relevant to library social services by addressing communities’ diversifying needs when COVID-19 brought new challenges regarding health care, unemployment, and poverty to the steps of libraries. Their focus is rural libraries, given the urgent needs and lack of resources in these areas while most library social services are currently provided in metropolitan areas.
Yoon said, “To achieve our project goal of developing a social service model in public libraries, we will (1) explore rural communities’ diversifying needs and rural libraries’ existing efforts to meet those needs and (2) design a prototype social service that can be used in rural libraries. Our overarching research question is: How can rural libraries meet communities’ psychosocial needs?”
Multi-phased studies will be conducted employing various methods, including surveys, interviews, and environmental scan. During the project period, Yoon and Hong will actively collaborate with ARLS to collect data and also receive community feedback. They will also have four partner libraries during their prototype design process to embed practical perspectives.
According to the grant, the team’s findings will provide implications across interdisciplinary domains of library and information science (LIS) and social work. “Our findings will broaden the understanding of library social services and the role of library social workers. Our prototype model can potentially be implemented at various locations if validated on a national scale, which can be a useful resource/tool for rural libraries to meet community needs. Our outcomes will also impact on library practices and their communities by bring attention and awareness to potential barriers and opportunities for social services for rural communities, while offering a new way of serving rural communities to social work practitioners. Our project also provides an implication for LIS and social work education by identifying the necessary skills and knowledge relevant to social services at rural contexts,” Yoon said.
The emerging role of libraries as community and civic centers
Past research has shown the prevalence of patrons experiencing diversifying social, physical, and psychological needs in public libraries, because libraries are seen as a safe, neutral space that is approachable to patrons. This has resulted in libraries seeking innovative ways to meet patrons’ needs related to mental illness, homelessness, poverty, and physical health issues. As libraries have a mission to provide free access to information, some libraries have been connecting their communities with needed social services, especially for underserved populations.
Hong said, “I am excited to learn more about our rural communities and the practical and meaningful impact that this study could have. As we conduct a community needs assessment as the first phase of our study, we will discover the pressing needs of our community in the words of Hoosiers themselves. In addition, I look forward to the final product of our project, a social service model for rural community and its impact on our community.
“Despite the increasing social service needs from patrons, these needs have not been well addressed particularly in rural areas. Given our data driven approach, I am thrilled to be a part of developing a social service model and exploring its applicability to our community.”
Addressing gaps in research and practice
While two-fifths of U.S. libraries are in rural areas and serve a total population of over 30 million, most library social services are provided in metropolitan areas (mostly in the northeast or on the west coast), indicating the dearth of social services at public libraries in rural areas.
Library social services present new opportunities and challenges for interprofessional collaboration, education, and practices. Introducing and integrating new services into existing practices requires careful adoption of existing practices (e.g., policy changes, raising professionals’ awareness) and educational preparation (e.g., topics on community practices and organizational leadership).
“Our goal is to develop a social service model that can address different needs at rural libraries utilizing different resources and networks, given that rural libraries traditionally have smaller budgets and fewer staff with library and information science degrees. We hope to produce plans for those rural libraries to utilize existing resources and networks when serving patrons in need with less financial burden,” Hong said.
The development of this model is well positioned to help elevate the role of the library as a trusted and responsive community connector beyond serving as the vehicle for access to social workers. The project will also impact LIS education and potential social work education due to the expertise of the partners who will be working on this research, thus further proving the national impact that this research project could have on communities and different areas in LIS.
“I hope that this research project makes a meaningful contribution to improving the lives of people living in rural areas. Through the project, I would like public libraries to be more empowered to meet the psychosocial needs of community in rural areas, and I hope to raise awareness among individuals in the community about the services and information available to address their needs,” Hong said.