Letter from Public Library Directors and Social Workers

September 4, 2018

This letter was excerpted in the From Our Readers section of American Libraries’ September/October issue. Here the full letter appears, with a complete list of signees.

As public institutions, we take very seriously our role of supporting and enhancing the communities we serve. We value and honor our customers by providing programs and services that help people better themselves and ultimately the world around them. And in an effort to better serve many of our communities, libraries across the country have begun hiring social workers to attend to customers with unique needs.

These customers include those who are experiencing adverse life challenges such as homelessness, substance use issues, trauma, and mental health crises.

We represent libraries that have hired and collaborated with social workers, and we are at the forefront of serving these customers in new and innovative ways. We’ve seen firsthand the power of providing thoughtful, trauma-informed care and the positive impact it has on our libraries, customers, staffs, and communities. This work has not been easy; however, we are seeing measurable success from our efforts. For this reason, we urge the American Library Association to carefully and cautiously examine individuals who claim to speak with authority on serving these specialized populations.

Our joint backgrounds as social workers and library professionals puts us in a unique position to discuss the effectiveness of the trauma-informed care approach. We’ve had success and setbacks but overall find that this model of care and service is the right approach for our customers. Our staffs agree with that assessment. We’d like to share some highlights of our strategies with you:

Trauma-informed care. Our social workers use trauma-informed care as the basis for our interaction with customers. Trauma, including childhood trauma, is often the underlying factor in homelessness and other life challenges. In fact, many people who have and continue to experience trauma also experience mental health and substance use issues. We approach people with an understanding that they’ve experienced trauma, and we do not want to further traumatize them. This builds trust in us as library staffers and also trust in our libraries.

We pay close attention to language and labels when working with customers experiencing life challenges. Specifically, we use terms such as “people experiencing homelessness” or “having an experience of being homeless” rather than a blanket statement of “homeless.” The same applies with other conditions such as substance use. These experiences do not define people; people define their experiences.

We work extensively with library staffers to help them better understand the effects of trauma and how to minimize triggering behavior when interacting with customers. We help staff members understand their own strengths and how they can utilize their own experiences to better serve customers.

Homelessness. Social workers and librarians view homelessness as a system issue versus an individual issue. That means we don’t make judgments against customers on the cause or causes of homelessness or their housing situation; rather, we use a compassionate approach to treat customers regardless of housing circumstance.

We train and educate library staffers on being part of the solution to homelessness. We explain how policy work, advocacy, and compassion must be used together to systematically address homelessness and the effects it has on individuals, families, and communities.

A focus on behavior. We’ve learned through our efforts that the best approach to serving these populations is to address behavior that occurs in our facilities. Behaviors can be challenging, but we don’t view individuals as being challenging. That might sound like splitting hairs, but it really makes a difference in how staff members view customers and how customers ultimately feel safer in the library. When everyone feels like they own the space, there are fewer behavior issues.

Creating welcoming spaces. Our approaches are made even more effective when we create welcoming spaces for customers experiencing life challenges. We go even further to proudly proclaim our spaces and our resources are available to all—regardless of economic status, housing status, health condition, race, creed, sexual orientation, gender orientation, and more. Our commitment to the public means that we welcome everyone but address behavior separately so that everyone is free to benefit from our work. We feel this approach reflects the values of librarianship: providing free and equal access to anyone who can benefit.

This work is producing measurable results. We’re proud of the service we provide to address societal concerns while simultaneously reducing barriers to library access. We are actively being a part of the solution to issues like homelessness and substance use issues and believe that our efforts will continue to expand across the country.

We are available to talk with you further about our work and how other libraries can benefit from our success.

Public Library Directors and Social Workers

Michelle Jeske
City Librarian
Denver Public Library

Elissa Hardy
Community Resource Manager
Denver Public Library

Tom Fortin
Chief of Main
San Francisco Public Library

Leah Esguerra
Social Service Team Supervisor
San Francisco Public Library

Nick Higgins
Chief Librarian
Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library

Ashley Horn
Social Work Program Coordinator
Brooklyn (N.Y) Public Library

Oliver Sanidas
Executive Director
Arapahoe (Colo.) Library District

Linda Speas
Director of Library Operations
Arapahoe (Colo.) Library District

Brendan Haggerty
Community Resource Specialist
Arapahoe (Colo.) Library District

Mary Olive Joyce
Director of Library Outreach and Community Engagement
Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library

Jason Pearl
Community Resource Specialist
Kansas City (Mo.) Public Library

Peter Bromberg
Executive Director
Salt Lake City Public Library


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