Now What?

Back in March, when we were in the first frenzy of closures, there was a brief window of time when my state’s governor ordered businesses to shut down but exempted public libraries. That changed quickly, but the few days of waiting and not knowing felt eternal. At one point, in the comments section of a FB live stream, I was advocating strongly for library closure, and a person I didn’t know who identified as a fellow local government (but non-library) employee responded, “But where would the homeless people go?” (Her wording; I always say “people experiencing homelessness.”)

This person had no idea of the amount of my professional life and thought has been devoted to the service of patrons in crisis in public libraries, and I didn’t unleash on her, but wow did I ever have a multi-layered reaction to that comment. Where would they go, indeed? This is just one of so many weak points in American society that have been exposed by the pandemic. Here in Minneapolis, even before George Floyd’s murder, we had some tension around library staff facing reassignment to county-funded hotels for people experiencing homelessness. During and after the protests, volunteers took over a Sheraton and ran it successfully for a brief time before being evicted by the property’s owner. Foreshadowed by “The Wall of Forgotten Natives,” a 2018 encampment/protest centered on Native people experiencing homelessness, we now have multiple encampments of people experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis’s beloved parks system. Their numbers became so extensive in one park in the heart of South Minneapolis that a few people were able to commit acts of violence in their midst, resulting in a vote to restrict the number of tents allowed per site.

All of this is context for me to say: my primary reaction to “But where will the homeless people go?” was and still is that public libraries can’t answer that question. We have a role to play because we are the place many people turn to when they have nowhere else, and we hire social workers and get to know our social service neighbors so that we can help patrons connect to the services they need. Holding that knowledge and fostering those relationships for hand-off are part of how we provide important information services to our communities, but we’re a filtering point, not the ultimate solution. I’ve always maintained that the goal for libraries is to learn some skills we’re aware we need from social workers and understand better what they do so that we’re more knowledgable to help patrons, but not to become social workers ourselves.

Nevertheless, we’ve been catching the folks who fall through the ever-widening cracks in the rest of society. We’re not just providing social service connections; we’re also feeding children, teens, and sometimes adults in the library. I haven’t even touched on public health partnerships, which are more crucial now than ever. Before the pandemic, as I saw libraries across the US racing to help everyone survive, I began to see we could do much more to collect and share the stories of folks we help during dire times. We see the things that many other people get to ignore, and I thought we could mobilize to raise awareness among the general population as well as government officials. I was beginning to consider how to weave advocacy more thoroughly into the trainings I was giving.

There’s still a lot of possibility there, but my focus has shifted and expanded. I see public libraries providing not only important information hubs for their communities right now, but also acting to bridge the digital divide where schools and other nonprofit and government entities leave gaps. I also see the need for us to advocate on our own behalf and not just on behalf of patrons, and it seems far more urgent to me now than before the pandemic and social unrest. With library buildings closed or offering minimal in-person services, our many other great and important contributions aren’t visible unless we make them so. We’ve never overcome the central concept of libraries as buildings full off books (and computers), and often public response now focuses on those physical, transactional services. Because of that, our elected and other government officials may also focus on those transactions. In the long run, we need the additional work we do to be seen if we’re going to be able to continue to function as part of a healthy social safety net. And yes, when I say healthy, I do still mean one where librarians aren’t social workers, and where we have capacity to do the kind of patron advocacy work I was considering in better times.

As for the role of library social workers in crisis response, so far it seems to be a mixed bag, with some taking leadership roles in library reopenings while others are reassigned to shore up the front-line work of their colleagues. I personally have more questions than answers right now and am looking forward to seeing what people choose to share publicly about their work when they have the time and space for it. In the meantime, I’m trying to maintain hope that this is an opportunity to educate society about what we do.

Update: I added these action points to the home page and am also listing them here. Please let me know if I’m wrong about any of these. I’m not paid to promote them and am exploring them right now myself as educational/growth opportunities.

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