Here’s Why Your Town Library Should Hire a Social Worker

In any given community, the public library is one of the most important buildings. The library plays many roles, providing space, resources, and programming, with its doors open to all. In certain cities across the U.S., about three dozen libraries and systems currently have a social worker on staff. This number is growing as communities report the positive effects of having on-staff social workers. Libraries can often be a safe place for children and adults who don’t have another place to go. In the context of a public library, however, what does a social worker do?

Jean Badalementi is a social worker with the D.C. Public Library and has been with the DCPL for nearly six years, providing training and support to library staff, as well as partnering with the department of Behavioral Health to bring in peer specialists. The peer specialists, who have experienced homelessness or are in recovery, travel to different libraries to help people get connected with support. Support is available in a variety of different means, including connecting students and families with further assistance in food and housing, escaping violence, employment aid, and more.

Library social workers often provide training for staff that is focused on safety and understanding. Assertiveness and bystander intervention is a crucial part of the DCPL training. Staff education covers topics such as mental health and the causes of homelessness. Staff without training may have to turn away patrons in crisis, including children or the elderly. By providing education, the library is better able to assist those in need. This education has encouraged a culture shift that Badalementi has seen over the last few years. The DCPL has embraced its role as a community center, providing compassion and a sense of welcoming to all of its patrons.

Yanna McGraw works at the Central Library in downtown Indianapolis. A big part of her job is building relationships with visitors and helping answer their questions, but the information she provides is rarely about books. Instead, McGraw answers queries about the workings of the Department of Child Services, or she helps connect patrons with mental health resources. Sometimes she helps someone find a warm place to stay for the night. McGraw is the library’s first full-time social worker – one of about a dozen employed by libraries across the Midwest.

The Indianapolis Public Library hired McGraw because it was seeing more patrons dealing with complex life issues. She’s only been on the job about five months, but McGraw has already worked with library guests dealing with housing insecurity and difficulty accessing federal stimulus money, among other challenges. McGraw says she is able to assist patrons in ways librarians can’t.

“I’m able to spend that time, pick up the phone, ask the question, send an email to a community partner, if I have that relationship,” McGraw says. For years, libraries have been a place people turn to for information to help them solve problems. But the challenges patrons are dealing with are increasingly beyond the scope of what most librarians are trained to handle — and that’s where social workers can fill in the gaps.

Providing public health services in public libraries isn’t new. Many libraries are stocking the overdose antidote Narcan and training staff on how to administer it. Some libraries play host to vaccination clinics and others have assisted in health insurance enrollment. Indianapolis Public Library interim CEO John Helling says people trust libraries. “We’re a safe place, we’re a clean place, where we try to be a helpful place,” Helling says. “And so we do find patrons experiencing just a wide variety of needs that just end up in our building, because we’re the only place where they can go.”

Beth Whaler, director of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, works with public libraries across the country to understand their needs and suggests ways social workers may be able to help. Whaler says she has consistently found libraries to be central to their communities. For that reason, library staff are often more keenly aware of their community’s emerging needs than other public entities may be. “Sometimes they’re the first ones to know what gaps [in social services] exist, because those are the issues that are coming in the door with the patron population there,” Whaler says.

Her research has highlighted some of those gaps. Whaler conducted a survey of almost 5,000 people at three Midwest public libraries. Preliminary results, which have not yet been published, show that 10% of patrons reported needing help finding a job, 6% said they needed mental health assistance and 4% needed housing assistance. These percentages might seem small, Whaler says, but many patrons have multiple needs— many of which require specialized training to adequately address. And, Whaler notes, any given library is faced with hundreds of patrons in need of assistance.

“There are not enough shelter beds for people who are lacking safe housing; there aren’t enough providers for mental health services [or] substance abuse services,” Whaler says. “People have trouble accessing health insurance and medical care. There’s not a livable wage in most communities.” The problems are made worse by a lack of funding and social services: In many communities, available services have not kept up with the need. Placing social workers in libraries makes a lot of sense, she says. “We are trained to assess and intervene with mental health, substance use, basic needs, poverty related needs, you know, a little bit of everything,” Whaler says.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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