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Hat tip to Artsjournal.com which posted an NPR story about libraries that are bringing social workers on staff. The main reason is that libraries are serving the role as a community resource beyond a source of books. Libraries are increasingly a place for classes, after school activities, meetings as well as providing daytime shelter for homeless and unfortunately, those with drug addictions.
I served on the board of a library until about a year ago and there were frequent conversations regarding concerns about used needles and blood splatters in the restrooms. There were also debates about whether to stock Narcan and what the library’s liability might be if doses were administered. Just before I left the board, we were discussing signing a letter of agreement with social service agencies to provide services at some of the library branches.
The NPR story touches on these same issues facing the social workers at the libraries they profile. One of the benefits of having a social worker in a library is that it changes the dynamics of the traditional relationship people have with social services. Instead of people going to a government run office and waiting to petition for assistance, the social worker circulates among patrons, discusses services that are available and helps them connect with those services.
“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,’ ” she says. “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.”
But Esguerra says the idea of bringing social workers into libraries isn’t just meant to help librarians; it encourages people in need to take advantage of the services the library-based social workers offer.
“Coming to the library is not attached with any stigma, unlike coming to, like, you know, other traditional settings,” she explains. “So public libraries really are the best places to reach out to the population and be effective at it.”
While not every arts organization serves groups that need this type of social service support, there may be other social support activities they can make available. In some instances, they key may be to take the same approach as the social worker in the library. Instead of saying come here to receive these services with an eye to attracting larger groups of people, just have the services available in a low key way for those that do arrive.
During the summer there are a lot of free plays and concerts offered across the country. There may be people who show up whom an experienced eye could identify as potentially having a need for everything from food and medicine to help registering for school and getting school supplies. I am sure I am thinking too narrowly in terms of the type of support arts organizations might offer.
Then there is the approach from the other direction where arts organizations are present at social service and medical facilities. One of my favorite stories the project that put pop up art stations at a health clinic in Minneapolis.