July 22, 2019

Libraries get even better with resident social workers


For many, libraries offer more than just access to books. With resources on securing employment, furthering education, or just a place to sit indoors, away from the elements, libraries provide community members refuge from the day-to-day grind.

But what if libraries could also connect their residents with people who could give them the tools to climb out of some of life’s most difficult circumstances? NPR’s Colin Dwyer spoke with David Perez, one of the first social workers hired to work at a local library in the U.S., who offers his social services to the community of New Jersey. According to Dwyer, Perez is “the only social worker in the state employed permanently by a public library.”

Perez studied social work after spending many years with the U.S. Army. The last place he thought he’d find work was at a library, but upon graduating he found himself interning at the local branch. But the opportunities were too big for him to not notice.

“Anyone can come right in here, and you don’t need to be of any class, you don’t need money,” he tells NPR. “You can take advantage of all of the services that we offer.”

Those services include, “teaching tech courses, giving career counseling, and caring for people experiencing homelessness,” writes Dwyer. More urgently, employing a social worker equipped to administer Narcan, the anti-overdose drug, could help many patrons in need of help.

Dwyer writes, “Perez’s library can even treat drug overdoses. It stocks two doses of Narcan, an anti-overdose drug, behind its circulation desk to deal with the effects of the opioid epidemic, much like thousands of public libraries across the U.S.”

While the demands on library employees have been shifting these past few years, community support is quickly becoming an important part of a librarian’s day-to-day job. Dwyer also spoke with Leah Esguerra, who has been the resident social worker at the San Francisco Public Library since 2009. According to him, Esguerra “developed systems to connect patrons with mental health services, help them find jobs, get them legal support—and the San Francisco Public Library says she has helped find permanent housing for scores of people.”

“There was no blueprint. The public library is not a traditional setting for a social worker, so there was a lot of conversation at the start … I walk around and try to talk to people who might be experiencing homelessness. We never ask them directly, but I would just come up to them and say, ‘I don’t know if you’re aware there’s a social worker and there are social services here. Because of my role as a professional, clinical social worker, I can do assessments and determine if I need to provide extra support by linking them with community services such as clinics or mental health or for them to see a doctor.”

Esguerra now co-chairs a group at the Public Library Association that helps libraries throughout the United States “develop and recommend a strategic and coordinated approach” in better addressing the various needs their patrons might have.

Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.