Give ’em shelter, and then what?

It’s winter and libraries across America are full of people sheltering from the weather. There are a variety of responses to this “mission creep.” In Detroit, the public library is feeding kids snacks after school and lunches in the summer. In Tucson, six branches of the library have public health nurses on staff. I wrote a post here last year about San Francisco Public Library’s social worker.

If your first reaction is “oh, we could never do that, we don’t have the resources” — and I’ll admit I’ve thought that myself — consider this. In Tucson’s “main library, emergency calls seeking police help dropped 14 percent last year; at another branch, 911 calls dropped 60 percent.” Having had to call 911 yesterday, I know that it disrupts service to patrons (and other work) when we have to deal with a crisis. And it has an insidious impact as well: have enough experiences like this and the staff begins to feel entrenched against forces it can’t adequately respond to. That hurts morale, which ends up hurting customer service. I’ve seen it this winter: we’re becoming so accustomed to saying “no” to patrons when we have to, that it becomes easier to say it when we don’t have to. Which costs us goodwill in our community.

And we’re already doing social work. People come into the library to have a need addressed, whether it’s the need for a book or article or today’s newspaper, space to hang out with friends, a computer to check email or apply for a job, or a warm, safe place to spend the day. We provide resources for all those needs, without judging their “librariness.” Having a social worker or health worker in a public library is a bit like having specialist reference staff in an academic library; hiring people with subject knowledge is efficient.

Still there are those who say, we’re libraries, we should stick to our core mission. Lend books and other materials to promote literacy and foster a love of reading. Offer quiet space for study. Help people find information and resources. But the director of the Detroit library noticed the systemic relationship of their mission and their patrons’ needs. They weren’t able to achieve their mission because kids were coming to the library too hungry to concentrate on the programs being offered. 

One of my favorite nonprofits, Partners In Health, is the ultimate model of this holistic approach. Paul Farmer founded PIH to work in solidarity with the communities it serves. “Partners In Health strives to achieve two overarching goals: to bring the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need of them and to serve as an antidote to despair.” Which means PIH goes beyond what most would consider medical care. They provide what their patients need (schools, sanitation, housing, water, food), so their medical work succeeds.

Detroit and Tucson decided that in order for their library work to succeed, they needed to go beyond what most would consider library services to provide what their patrons need. It’s a model I’ll be watching with interest, and with hope that they succeed in being antidotes to despair.