Librarians do more than sit around and talk about books. They often have to do more than they ever learned in library school. In recent years, they have had to respond personally to crises such as homelessness and opiate overdose.
Librarians have become de facto first responders.
It’s either that or taking steps to keep “those people” out of the library.
Of course, libraries can’t t do that. Libraries exist to serve the entire community, and especially people who have nowhere else to turn. Few library schools offer any classes on mental health or other social issues. That doesn’t keep such problems from intruding on librarians’ work.
Librarians at the New York Public Library and other urban libraries receive training in non-library problems. Many have had to administer naloxone (Narcan™) to save the lives of people experiencing drug overdoses. They learn CPR, conflict resolution, and responding to mental health crises.
It’s not enough.
We’re beginning to see social workers in libraries. A growing number of libraries have hired one to serve on their staff.
Libraries as de facto day shelter
Public libraries make attractive day shelters for the homeless. They have ample bathrooms. No one has to go through a security check to get in.
They’re safe havens not only from bad weather, but from the increasing dangers of the streets. The National Coalition of the Homeless attributes 112 attacks on homeless people in 2016 and 2017 to hate crimes. Of those, 48 resulted in death.
Unfortunately, the same characteristics that attract hate crimes make ordinary library patrons uncomfortable around homeless people.
And, of course, not all addicts or people with mental health problem are homeless. When they spend time in the library, their problems come with them and make others uncomfortable.
Librarians have just the training to help with some social problems. They can help patrons find all kinds of information, from reading material to contact information for various social services.
When they have to act as first responders, they have to act beyond their training. And it takes them away from acting as librarians. So they welcome social workers in libraries
The first library social worker
In 2009, the San Francisco Public Library became the first in the nation to hire a full-time social worker, Leah Esguerra. They directed her to serve three kinds of clients, “patrons, the community, and library staff.” She describes libraries with social workers as a “community living room.”
As a social worker, she walks through the library to form relationships with the people who need her, especially the homeless. After performing a full clinical assessment, she works with the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team. They provide personalized help for each person.
The library decided to create a staff position for a social worker when patrons complained about how “those people” misused bathrooms, did drugs, and otherwise created disruption.
It also decided to hire some of the homeless people to perform some routine maintenance tasks. Esguerra guides applicants through vocational rehabilitation before hiring them. They receive both a paycheck and a sense of dignity and worth they didn’t have before.
She has six formerly homeless associates and two team leaders working for her. They are an asset in reaching out to homeless people, because they have personal experience dealing with San Francisco’s social services.
As far as the staff is concerned, Esguerra both trains them and helps connect community members to librarians. Some troubled patrons might think of the library only as a place they can hang out. But if they need to know how to look for work or information about their health, they might not know they can ask a librarian.
Other library social workers
In the ten years since Esguerra began her job in San Francisco, more than forty other libraries have hired social workers.
Not only large library systems like San Francisco and Denver have hired social workers. So has the Georgetown Public Library in Texas, serving a community of about 65,000. But even smaller cities suffer homelessness. Their citizens need help with finances, emergency shelters, and affordable housing.
Librarians are well equipped to provide information, but not all the help these patrons need. Social workers in libraries can work at a whole different level.
Georgetown’s library social worker, Patrick Lloyd, notes that when he started, library staff would point out patrons who needed his services. After three years, some of them feel comfortable offering help themselves and then informing him.
San Francisco has influenced other libraries beyond hiring social workers. Arizona’s Pima County Library pioneered hiring public service nurses to work in its branches. Like Esguerra, they walk around the libraries looking for anyone who needs help. But they provide medical services.
Libraries have adopted three main funding models for library social workers. Some pay them directly out of their own personnel budget. Georgetown, among others, funds the position with grant money. Evanston Public Library, north of Chicago, partners with Amita Health, which assigns its staff to work in the library.
Not enough libraries hire social workers for either the American Library Association or the National Association of Social Workers to track their numbers. More libraries would probably hire social workers if they hadn’t suffered such severe budget cuts during the last recession.
Meanwhile, in the majority of libraries that haven’t hired a social worker, librarians still serve as first responders. It’s part of their mission to serve everyone.
Librarians facing new tasks say crisis isn’t in the catalog / Ali Swenson, Associated Press. August 9, 2019
Library social work: separating fact from fiction / Paula Kiger, Smart Brief. May 28, 2019
Public libraries add social workers and social programs / Barbara Trainin Blank, The New Social Worker. November 28, 2015
The San Francisco Public Library gets hundreds of visits from the homeless daily. This is the INCREDIBLE step they took to help / Morgan Cutolo, Reader’s Digest. 
A social worker walks into a library / Terra Dankowski, American Libraries. March 28, 2018
Reference desk. Source unknown
Homeless in Seattle. Some rights reserved by Howard County Library System.
Library social worker logo. Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Library patrons. Some rights reserved by liz west.