What does having a staffed social worker look like for a public library? How can libraries provide referrals for customers while maintaining confidentiality and privacy? What can libraries do to train and support frontline employees encountering populations dealing with homelessness and mental health issues?
These were some of the tough questions tackled by embedded social workers at “A Social Worker Walks into a Library,” a preconference of the Public Library Association Conference in Philadelphia on March 20. The session explored different models and approaches for administering social services, and how social work programs at public libraries began and evolved.
“When I first started, I was told my clients are patrons, the community, and library staff,” said Leah Esguerra, social service team supervisor at San Francisco Public Library (SFPL)—the first library in the nation to appoint a full-time social worker. Without a blueprint, Esguerra began by building relationships, learning the library’s culture, and getting ideas for bringing social work to a nontraditional setting. “In my first six months, I met with every department,” she said.
For many libraries, the late-2000s recession and housing crisis was the impetus behind bringing licensed social workers into their organizations. Jean Badalamenti, health and human services assistant manager at DC Public Library, said that Washington, D.C., lost 50% of its affordable housing between 2003 and 2015. She was hired in 2014 not to do direct outreach or casework, but to devise a systemwide approach to homelessness and leverage the expertise of homelessness service providers.
“I started with a staff survey,” Badalamenti said. “What are people’s daily lives like working in the library? Are they seeing people experiencing homeless all day, every day?”
Elissa Hardy, community resource manager at Denver Public Library, expressed that her city was facing the same types of problems. Denver gains about 10,000 new residents a month, which has increased gentrification and displacement of longtime residents. She stressed that homeless shelters aren’t going to fix institutional problems and a lack of affordable housing. “That’s not the answer, but that’s part of the solution,” Hardy said.
Panelists also spoke about the challenges and assets of creating a library social work program. For Patrick Lloyd, community resources coordinator at the single-branch Georgetown (Texas) Public Library, one of the obstacles is getting his smaller city (population of about 67,000) to acknowledge that the community has homelessness and domestic violence. Another challenge is discretion, as not everyone who could benefit from social services is actively seeking them when they come to the library.
“I don’t have an intake form, I don’t have a script,” said Lloyd. “I’m trying to build trust.”
Tactics for supporting social work in the library ranged among panelists, such as providing Homelessness and Mental Health 101 courses to staffers, recruiting peer navigators who are in recovery or social work students to help administer services, forming partnerships with local organizations (such as SFPL’s partnership with Lava Mae, a service that brings shower buses to the library), and offering opt-in training to staffers on recognizing the symptoms of an opioid overdose and dispensing the drug naloxone.
Paramount to remember, said Badalamenti, is that a social worker cannot eliminate homelessness or poverty from the library. “This is not just a library problem—it’s an entire community problem,” she said.