Moving from Why to How: Embedding Social and Community Services Practices in Libraries.

Public libraries act as community hubs that offer a space to read, study, relax, access information, charge a device, use computers, attend events, get out of weather, and many other benefits. As free and accessible spaces, libraries welcome everyone and offer programs and innovative ways to engage with their communities.
Library services offer an accessible space for all community members including the socially disadvantaged and people with complex needs. As such, library staff are increasingly being asked to support visitors with a range of requests including the filling out of complex government documents required for accessing basic services, assisting in finding accommodation, supporting the navigation of compromised email and bank accounts, and helping visitors with job applications. In addition to seeking traditional library services, some customers may seek information and support for a variety of complex social issues they are facing such as: housing instability or homelessness; alcohol and other drug issues; safety concerns including family violence; financial issues, mental health issues and inequality, discrimination and poverty.
Due to experiencing significant social issues some patrons/customers also display anti-social behaviour, including aggressive and erratic behaviour that can be challenging for library staff to witness and respond to. The complexity and prevalence of challenging behaviours and scenarios are often beyond the expertise and training received by library staff. Without adequate support as they are called on to respond to the increasing social service needs of their visitors, and to manage challenging behaviour, we are at risk of impacting the wellbeing and mental health of staff and risk not meeting the needs of these and other library visitors.
This panel session will draw on experiences from the Social Work in Libraries Community of Practice Group, to look at how trained social or community workers are currently contributing to libraries and explore some models of how these workers can work within libraries.
The models that will be explored through the panel include:
  1. Front of House Service Delivery to customers: Taking the shape of case workers in the library, this model allows library staff to refer a customer to an in-house social worker who will then support customers directly. As well as working with individual library visitors, this model may include group work focussed on meeting the needs of specific community groups.
  2. Back of House staff capacity development: This involves developing policy and procedures that support staff responsiveness and learning. Social work principles are employed to build staff capacity and resilience through training opportunities and effective de-briefing processes (both formal and peer).
  3. Community Partnership model: Creating partnerships with existing social and community service providers, this model enables libraries to belong to an ecosystem of care that supports and responds to individual needs of library visitors with high social service needs. The library staff members don’t take on traditional case work, but rather equip customers with information to access services that already exist in the community or provide spaces for those organisations to engage with clients within the library spaces.
  4. Community Work Practice: Including a Community Worker role within the library to connect widely and meaningfully with a broad representation of the community they serve.
The panel will share the rationale for the model their library offers, the strengths and challenges of the various models, and importantly the strategic structure that underpins the practise of including social and community services practices and principles in their libraries. As no one model can realistically sit in isolation, and none can exist without broader structural policy and support, the panel will touch on organisational strategic structures that underpin the work they are doing, and how that informs and drives adoption of the work being done.

Dr Jane Garner

Senior Lecturer, Charles Sturt University

Author Bio

Dr Jane Garner is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Information and Communication Studies at Charles Sturt University. She is also an Australian Research Council Fellow undertaking a three-year DECRA research project that focusses on the relationship between public libraries, people experiencing homelessness and the services that support them. Another element of Dr Garner’s research involves investigations into the role of books, libraries and reading in the lives of people detained in correctional facilities. She has recently undertaken research-related activities with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in the Philippines and with UNESCO in Germany regarding libraries in prisons. Dr Garner also undertakes research into the role of social workers in public libraries and is part of the Charles Sturt University Social Work in the Library Project team.