RACINE — A patron walks into a library, and instead of heading for the shelves, they ask: “May I see your social worker?”
It’s not a common question at a library’s circulation desk, but Racine Public Library staff will likely hear it more with the coming of their new full-time social worker.
Ashley Cedeño, a recent graduate who received her master’s in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was added to RPL’s staff in early September to address patrons’ needs beyond what they can routinely find at the library.
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Since Cedeño arrived, she has addressed patrons’ concerns with housing, legal services, sexual assault services, mental health and even applying for benefits. So far, housing concerns have been most needed.
The concerns “ranged from simply looking for affordable housing/helping them apartment search, or giving them contact information for local shelters,” Cedeño said.
According to a press release from the library: In early 2019, its staff took a six-week course to address the trend towards social services in libraries across the country. Then, the library invited leaders from local organizations to discuss how best to serve the community.
The library brought in a part-time intern social worker in the same year, and then partnered with Carthage College students later on to host more intern social workers. It was clear, from the patrons’ demand of the positions, that the library needed a full-time social worker to help bridge the gap between patrons and resources in Racine.
“It’s a mistake to think that libraries are in the book business. Libraries are in the human business,” said RPL Executive Director Angela Zimmermann. “Libraries serve as community hubs that are indispensable connectors of education, information, resources, services, and access that attend to human needs …
“Libraries will continue to play a fundamental and important role in society and our communities as we adapt to its needs, and the hiring of a social worker is a shining example of just that.”
To reach even more community members, the library’s social worker services are offered for free.
“I had one patron who called and asked, ‘What type of insurance do you accept?’ And we don’t have to accept insurance. There are no qualifications you need to meet, or anything,” Cedeño said.
Pioneering social work
Social workers are relatively new in stock at libraries. According to NPR, the San Francisco Public Library is credited with being the first to bring a social worker on staff in 2009. RPL is in the one-fifth of U.S. libraries that employ a full-time social worker of their own.
There are only around 185 libraries altogether in the U.S. that host social workers in some form, according to the 2019 book “Whole Person Librarianship: A Social Work Approach to Patron Services.” Those positions tend to just be part-time, interns or partners with outside agencies, meaning having a dedicated full-time social worker is a big step.
But with the profession of library social worker being slightly over a decade old, there isn’t much guidance on how to do the job. The focus is then put on meeting patrons’ needs individually, emphasizing on person-first social work.
“I think it’s just a lot of accepting we’re all very new at this and that we’re all figuring this out together, and being okay with that, and just taking it day by day,” Cedeño said.
Originally from Blue Island, Illinois, a city about a half-hour south of Chicago, Cedeño is a first-generation college graduate who came to Wisconsin in 2015 to attend Carthage College. There, she earned her bachelor’s in social work before moving on to UW-Milwaukee.
Prior to the library, Cedeño worked with organizations like the Job Center of Kenosha, the Kenosha Area Family & Aging Center, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) Outreach Center in Kenosha, the Dewey Center and the Aurora Psychiatry Hospital.
One of her most fulfilling social work experiences so far have been participating in a Birth to 3 program, offering services to children under the age of 3 with developmental delays and disabilities and their families.
“One of the most rewarding things is having a child come into the program and then graduate from the program either early or when they’re 3 years old,” Cedeño said. “Just knowing that you were a part of their success, and a part of their growth, I think is the most impactful thing ever.”
At RPL, Cedeño has began developing a sensory room for young children that will be open in January. Possible upcoming programs at the library include a ‘Meet the Social Worker’ session, bringing in therapy dogs or partnering with other organizations for informational sessions.
“Ideas are still ruminating but I couldn’t be more thrilled that RPL has been able to bring such an important position to fruition,” Zimmermann said.