Literature and Love: The Power of Bringing Social Workers to Libraries

Photo Credit BEBETO MATTHEWS, ASSOCIATED PRESS / Shantel Johnson, right, a full-time social worker at Queens Central Library, and Michael Montero, left, social work summer intern from NYU, meet at the library's coordinating desk for adult services in the Queens borough of New York. Johnson oversees a team of case managers and helps librarians connect visitors to social services.

Public libraries are the backbone of many communities. Not only do they provide free written materials for the community, but many of them also offer computer labs, wifi boxes, free events, educational programming, and soon they may even start offering connection to social workers. 

Libraries continue to remain one of the few truly free public spaces that allow anyone regardless of age, state of mind, or social economic background. 

In many financially disadvantaged neighborhoods, that also lack robust and safe after school programs for children, libraries often act like the de facto after school hangout and program for youth. Staff will often tailor programming that is engaging and entertaining for the young people however, many librarians are not trained to deal with youth – let alone the troubles they might be experiencing.

David perez Social Workers Libraries
Photo Credit TONYA GARCIA / COURTESY OF LONG BRANCH FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY ~ David Perez takes a call earlier this year in his office at the Long Branch Free Public Library. The U.S. Army veteran says he was surprised when his school advisers suggested he work there — but after several years in the job, he says it makes perfect sense

For parents who are often still at work when their children get out of school having the library be a place that their children can go provides a sense of calm. Knowing that your child is in a safe space where adults are present, that they have some programming available to them, and that they are able to finish homework because the resources to do so are plentiful and available allows parents to worry less about their child’s safety while they are working. 

In 2013 the After School Alliance examined the relationship of public libraries when it came to youth and realized that the two intersect in many ways

However, youth and parents aren’t the only ones who frequent libraries. Often times you can find elderly, homeless, unemployed, and emotionally and mentally distraught people in libraries. The amalgam of people that libraries serve can create difficult environments for people to navigate. Add the increase in homelessness, the opioid crisis, and the reality of the abysmal state the United States public healthcare system is in and you soon realize that library staff deal with an array of people and situations in their day to day. Unfortunately many library staff are not equipped to deal with the high social needs demands of their patrons thus causes stress and overwhelm. 

Amanda Oliver quit her job at the public library in Washington, D.C. because of the immense stress she was under everyday. “There were incidents daily, including drunk patrons passing out, shoving arguments outside the bathroom, psychotic episodes that resulted in screaming matches with invisible entities. But the panic button was reserved for when things were truly bad.” And they did get truly bad while she was there. Perhaps this is why several states across the United States are testing out having social workers in their libraries. 

Having a social worker in libraries would not both help the library staff and help the library patrons further access services they may need. 

Modeled after a California program that had social workers available to library goers other states are trying to see if the model will work for them. Leah Esguerra is a San Francisco Public Library Social Service Team Supervisor and says that having social workers in libraries makes sense. Having an abundance of information regarding free services that patrons can access for their needs helps start conversations and ensure that people are getting the information they need to help them. Through listening to the patrons and connecting them with local resources Esguerra’s team has seen how, “forging our services and resources together we are stronger together, and more people experiencing homelessness will receive that help that they need within the safety of the library.”

Oliver feels that “libraries are great social equalizers. But we should be asking how other institutions can emulate their work as caring advocates and providers for society’s most vulnerable. Libraries can’t be the only ones.”

Perhaps integrating social work services is the place to start to ensure libraries do not continue to feel overburdened and people can get access to the services that they need to live the lives they want. 

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