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Public libraries have evolved to focus on the most-pressing community needs. But not all librarians are embracing the new duties and are leaving the profession.
The public library isn’t just for books anymore.
In San Francisco, public libraries doubled as makeshift classrooms for nearly 200 children without internet access at home so they could participate in online schooling during the worst of the pandemic. At five branches in Denver, library patrons can use 3-D printers to bring their inventions and creations to life. Seattle librarians hand out free after-school snacks to kids who stop by. One library in Michigan just launched a free music streaming service to showcase the work of local musicians.
“A lot of us still think of the library as a place to go for books and media, but that’s not what libraries are anymore at all,” said Beth Wahler, director of the school of social work at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. “Every day I hear about some cool program. They’re all trying to be safe places for people to go, especially for populations that don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Indeed, libraries are no longer “that kind of quiet space that people are used to, with a librarian shushing them,” said Sara Zettervall, founder of Whole Person Librarianship, which consults with and trains library staffs that are reaching beyond their traditional roles. “People are using the space as a kind of living room outside of their home.”
Patrons are visiting their local libraries less often and borrowing fewer physical books and media—down by about 20% since 2013, according to an Institute of Museum and Library Services survey.
Yet library use is at an all-time high because of a strong shift to digital lending. In fact, 50% of Americans have library cards, the survey said.
And more than 125 million people attended at least one library program in 2019 before the pandemic temporarily shut down up to 99% of those facilities, according to an estimate by the American Library Association.
The pivot from books and reference—which is still at the core of every library’s mission—to a sort of one-stop shop for members of the community who lack internet access at home; need assistance with job applications and social services forms; want to learn to speak English; or simply have no place to spend the day, began long before the pandemic.
“There was a huge shift about 20 years ago when the internet came into use by everyone,” Zettervall, a public librarian in Minnesota, said. “It changed the way libraries were doing reference work. We were no longer the official source of information. So we did some rethinking as a profession about what it meant for us in a time when people had different access to information. … What could we provide?”
The answer varied from reliable internet access to daytime shelter for the homeless.
“All are welcome” at San Francisco’s 28 public libraries, said city librarian Michael Lambert, who oversees the city’s library system. “We are here to serve the most underserved and vulnerable populations.
To that end, San Francisco’s main library on Larkin Street in 2009 became the first in the country to house a full-time social worker to help homeless, mentally ill and other community members get the help they need.
Approximately 55 other libraries in the United States and Canada have incorporated full-time social workers into their staffs since then, according to Zettervall.
“The library is here to foster community,” Lambert said.
Like most libraries, San Francisco’s partner with government and community organizations to hold classes and events. The city’s main library, for instance, held a Black History Month event featuring actor Danny Glover, author Terry McMillan and poet Quincy Troupe.
Librarians, Lambert said, “are really like community organizers. We’re activists. We’re also very innovative. We’re not just passively waiting for reference questions. We’ve been entrepreneurial and really focused on how we can meet the most pressing needs of our community.”
Most governments are not yet tallying how much in total their libraries are spending on these new resources. The funds are coming from partnerships with other city and county agencies on projects, fundraising in their communities, shuffling jobs around to add social workers and hiring interns, according to sources.
'There Were Incidents Daily'
That focus isn’t a fit for every librarian, however.
“People who went to school many years ago and learned the ways of many years ago may not be OK with” the shift in focus, Wahler said. “There’s always a subgroup of staff who are really uncomfortable with this direction. … They don’t want to be social workers. If they did, they would have gone to school for that.”
Former librarian Amanda Oliver said she left the field when she began to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There were incidents daily,” Oliver wrote in a column for the Los Angeles Times, “drunk patrons passing out, shoving arguments outside the bathroom, psychotic episodes that resulted in screaming matches with invisible entities.”
But Zettervall, co-author of "Whole Person Librarianship: A Social Work Approach to Patron Services", said incoming librarians know what they’re getting into.
“Most of the people who want to do that these days understand they’re not going to be working in a space where they’re quietly answering reference questions for people,” she said. “They’re getting into it because they want to help their community.”
And while “plenty of people want to be librarians,” Zettervall said, the industry is struggling to recruit librarians of color. “In a lot of places, we have library staffs that do not reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.”
In response, some libraries are diversifying their staffs by hiring more employees without library degrees.
“At public libraries, not everyone is a librarian,” Zettervall said. “We have different levels of staffing.”
In fact, Lambert said, libraries will move into the future with a chameleon-like response to the changing needs of their communities.
“The sky’s the limit of what’s possible,” he said.