It may surprise you to learn that the nation’s librarians have a much more significant role in American communities than you might think.
Across the nation, libraries have experienced a surge in patrons struggling with addiction, homelessness and mental illness. Resultantly, many branches have hired full-time social workers to serve at-risk patrons.
As libraries increasingly become the last refuge for many at-risk persons, a handful of librarian master’s degree programs have incorporated mental health training into their curricula. Most programs, however – have not.
At libraries across the nation, there’s a growing need for professionals who are trained to help individuals in need. Social workers work to improve the quality of life for at-risk groups. Resultantly, a slowly growing number of social workers are finding employment in an unlikely place – local libraries.
Seeking Help From One of the Few Friendly Faces Around
It’s not unusual for a social worker to aid a wide variety of people, all with different circumstances. However, it is unusual that a growing number of people seek help through local libraries.
Nevertheless, library administrators are slowly picking up on this trend. To date, New Jersey has one permanent full-time social worker employed in one of nearly 300 branches in the state. It’s a slow start, but it is a start.
Libraries have never been a place where patrons consisted solely of curious minds. They’ve always been a place of refuge for at-risk people. However, as of late, the number of at-risk people who seek shelter in libraries has risen sharply.
Today, it’s not uncommon for librarians to aid victims of the nation’s rampant opioid epidemic. Serious situations are not uncommon in the nation’s modern public libraries. Nevertheless, nothing that librarians learn in school prepares them for the reality of working in the field today.
Homeless in America
The Point-in-Time Count is an initiative used to take a census of the homeless population across the nation. Reporting of the homeless population is mandatory for municipalities to receive HUD funding. As of the last Point-in-Time count, volunteers recorded over half a million homeless people in the United States.
Homeless people face threats such as trauma, deteriorating mental health and unsecured temporary shelter. Among the population, there’s an increased risk of violence – both as victims and aggressors.
Many homeless individuals have nowhere else to go during inclement weather than the local public library. Accordingly, library leaders recognize that they must address the needs of the homeless population – albeit at a glacial pace.
To service the homeless population where they are, the group needs access to professionals trained to understand their needs. Also, they need access to individuals that can connect them with local service providers.
Working with homeless individuals in the library setting requires rethinking engagement with the typical patron. Homeless individuals may be sensitive to stimuli that wouldn’t affect a housing-secure person. Accordingly, modern librarians must have an understanding of the triggers for trauma-related symptoms, such as chaos and lack of privacy.
Librarians are doing what they can to serve the segment of library patrons that are displaced or otherwise at-risk. To aid a library system that’s transitioning to address the needs of homeless individuals, administrators now see social workers as a viable solution for bridging the service gap.
The Best Laid Plans
In a National Public Radio exposé, Army veteran David Perez recounts the winding road that led to his career as a social worker at the Long Branch Free Public Library. After the service, the former soldier bounced from job to job until enrolling in a social work program at a local university. Eventually, his advisers suggested that he interned at a local library, which took him by surprise.
At the time, Perez couldn’t understand why a social work program would recommend that he intern at a library. Nevertheless, he followed their recommendation.
Today, Perez fully understands the logic behind his advisor’s suggestion. In his capacity at the library, he oversees biology classes, career counseling and eldercare training.
Like many libraries across the United States, employees at the Long Branch Free Public Library keep drug overdose kits within reach behind the circulation desk. Remarks Perez, nothing in school prepared him for his current work environment.
Librarians who trained ten, or even five, years ago were not prepared to meet the needs of the at-risk individuals who walk through the door every day. As a result, a growing number of libraries across the country are hiring social workers to serve a patron composition that is changing all too fast.
Increasingly, the library is more than a place of knowledge – it’s a place to get help. For many, the library will serve as a first step toward once again becoming housing secure. What starts as a last-ditch attempt to find refuge, can turn into the beginning of a new chance at life for many individuals.
Photo is wikimedia creative commons
Guest Author Bio
With a Bachelor’s in Health Science along with an MBA, Sarah Daren has a wealth of knowledge within both the health and business sectors. Her expertise in scaling and identifying ways tech can improve the lives of others has led Sarah to be a consultant for a number of startup businesses, most prominently in the wellness industry, wearable technology and health education. She implements her health knowledge into every aspect of her life with a focus on making America a healthier and safer place for future generations to come.