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NewsFeb 21, 2023

Social work in the stacks

Lesley student helps Cambridge community through unique library internship

Emma Henson sitting at a table in the cambridge library speaking with a woman.
Master's in Social Work student Emma Henson is part of a unique initiative to offer free services through the Cambridge Public Library. (Photos: Ben Zackin)

By Georgia Sparling

Incorporating social workers into a public library setting is certainly a novel idea, and it’s one where Lesley graduate student Emma Henson ’23 has found her niche.

Henson has spent this school year as a social work intern at Cambridge Public Libraries, providing free help under the guidance of the branch’s full-time social worker Marie Mathieu.

As with library books, meeting with a social worker is free. Plus, it lowers barriers to getting help.

“It's more accessible to go into the library for a service, then go to the (Department of Mental Health) office, get a ticket and stand in line for five hours,” says Henson, a soon-to-be graduate of our Master’s in Social Work program.

One stop shop

Mathieu became the state’s first library social worker in 2021.

“Social work and librarianship have many things in common in terms of goals and making sure people have the tools they need to be successful,” Mathieu says. “It’s a little bit clinical, a little bit macro and because of how libraries are situated in communities, it’s a real neutral and safe space for a lot of people.”

The diversity of the clientele and the nature of the work attracted Henson, who was a mental health counselor for several years before matriculating first to Bunker Hill Community College and then Lesley.

For her first-year field placement, Henson provided counseling for students in our Threshold Program, but the library aligns more with her future career plans.

“I plan on finding jobs in community outreach and community organizing,” she says. “I’m helping people and bringing people together and building community.”

Emma Henson and Marie Mathieu speaking at a table in the Cambridge Public Library
Marie Mathieu (left) is the first library social worker in the state and has mentored Emma Henson throughout her internship.

Henson spends 24 hours a week at the library meeting with people of all ages and nationalities. Clients often request help to find housing, employment and childcare. While the social workers do not provide those services directly, they are a resource to connect individuals with government departments and local nonprofits who can meet those needs.

For Henson, that has meant learning a lot about the landscape of the social sector in Cambridge. Often, she says, organizations that provide the same or similar services aren’t aware of each other. That prompted her to work with others in the field to organize a social work summit, which is the “macro project” Henson selected as part of her internship. With emphases on self-care and networking, the March summit will bring together social workers from across the city.

“Our hope is it can grow over the course of the years,” Mathieu said, calling the summit Henson’s “legacy project.”

The summit along with her work at the library has given Henson valuable experience for her career.

“I've been doing a lot of things I've never done before, and it also is helping me build and network relationships,” she says. “I want to stay working in Cambridge and a big part of that is from this internship and working with the community and the people in Cambridge, and really falling in love with it.”