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An Interior View Of A Library

What is a social worker’s place in the library?

By: Eden Schwartz

What is a social worker’s place in the library?  

That was the question I asked myself when applying for the social worker position at the Orillia Public Library (OPL) in the spring of 2022. I can start answering that question one year after nine months of being a library social worker.  

An interior view of a libraryTo begin, social workers fit neatly into the library space. At OPL and most libraries across the country, the needs of patrons are changing. Patrons need access to print and online information, but they also need access to shelter, mental health support, housing resources, and so much more. As a social worker, I connect patrons with these resources. Here’s an example of what this resource connection can look like.  

A patron comes up to the circulation desk and asks for a library card but needs identification. The circulation staff give them a temporary card and ask if they want to help secure ID. The patron says, “Yes,” and I’m called to help. After speaking with the patron for a few minutes, I learned that they’ve just been released from prison and need not only identification but also shelter, food, and want to find employment. I understand that this patron came to the library because they knew they could warm up, use the bathroom, and get onto the computer free of charge. During our conversation, my colleague has already helped five other people.  

This example illustrates why libraries need social workers. Librarians are skilled professionals but can only sit with someone for an hour or longer to help them apply for identification, write a resume, or apply to a food bank. Furthermore, librarians are busy! While many librarians would be happy to help with these tasks, they do not have the time. Enter the social worker. I do not have to process holds, call patrons with overdue reminders, or do readers’ advisories. Instead, I help patrons access social services and community resources.  

In addition to connecting patrons with community resources, I support patrons who may struggle to follow the library’s behavioural expectations. If a patron is struggling to stay awake, is it because they have a medical condition, have not slept in three days, or are at risk of having an overdose? Whatever the reason, I work with the patron to connect them with the support they need.  

My role also includes supporting staff directly. Staff support includes daily check-ins, providing self-care and mental wellness resources, identifying training and professional development opportunities, and debriefing stressful incidents.  

As OPL is a single-branch system, I have time in my schedule to do outreach in the community. I hold outreach tables at the local food bank, methadone clinic, shelter, and a church that runs a lunch program. These outreach tables aim to reach people who may not think that the library is a place where they can come. It also allows me to chat with patrons more regularly.  

My role has changed and grown over the last nine months, and I expect that nine months from now, it will look different from how it does today. I have measured the impact of my role through statistics. At the time of writing, I have held 530 appointments and drop-in sessions with more than 200 individual patrons. I have made over 300 referrals to 57 community partners. Perhaps most significant is the decrease in suspensions and trespasses within the library. Comparing October 2019 – March 2020 with October 2022 – March 2023 (I began in October 2022), the number of incidents is down 69%, suspensions and trespasses are down 75%, and most importantly, the number of staff responding is down 82%. These numbers are not because the Orillia Public Library has a social worker. These numbers exist because the team is invested in addressing patrons’ changing needs. Staff have learned about community resources, how to de-escalate patrons in crisis, and can now refer patrons with complex needs to me, the social worker.  

When you are ready to bring a social worker onto your team, here are the four things you should consider. First, what does the social worker need? As the only social worker in the library, my role is, by nature, very isolated. Some of the supports that I have put in place over the last nine months include a weekly meeting with my library supervisor, a monthly meeting with my clinical (registered psychotherapist) supervisor, and a twice-monthly meeting with other library social workers. I have also worked hard to create solid partnerships, so I know whom to call when I have a question about housing, a detox program, or adult protective services.  

Second, what do your staff need? Do staff feel equipped to support patrons who are in crisis? If not, what role will the social worker play in supporting staff in gaining these skills? When starting in this role, I first conducted a needs assessment to determine how best to assist staff. The results from this assessment have been instrumental in deciding formal and informal supports. 

Third, what does your library need? Does your library need more inclusive programming? Does your library see many youths who are experiencing homelessness? Whatever your need is, consider this when bringing a social worker on board.  

And fourth, what are the needs of your community? In Orillia, we have a growing population of people experiencing homelessness and an increasing population of seniors. When considering programs, policies, or procedures, I always consider the impact I will have on the broader community. For example, I schedule my drop-in times to coincide with when the local shelter is closed because I know that is when folks experiencing homelessness are more likely to be in the library.  

So, what does a social worker do in the library? They do what all social workers do; they work to increase the well-being of individuals and communities. In the library context, this means improving the well-being of patrons, staff, the library, and the surrounding community. This broad answer allows each library social worker to address the needs of their library, patrons, and staff. It also provides flexibility and creativity, which are vital for the library and social work professions.  

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