From stacks of books to psychosis and food stamps, librarians face a new workplace


For nearly two decades, Lisa Dunseth loved her job at San Francisco’s main public library, especially her last seven years in the Rare Book Department.

But like many librarians, she saw a lot of chaos. Patrons with untreated mental illness or on drugs sometimes spit on library staff or overdose in the toilet. She remembers a colleague who was punched in the face as he returned from a lunch break. One afternoon in 2017, a man jumped from the library’s fifth-floor balcony.

Dunseth retired the following year at age 61, making an early exit from a nearly 40-year career.

“The public library should be a sanctuary for everyone,” she said. The problem was that she and many of her colleagues no longer felt safe in their jobs.

Libraries have long been one of society’s great equalizers, providing knowledge to anyone who wants it. As public buildings, often with long opening hours, they have also become orderly refuges for people with nowhere to go. In recent years, amid relentless demand for safety net services, community leaders have called on libraries to formalize this role, extending beyond books and computers to provide outreach and support on room for people living on the street. In big cities and small towns, many are now offering help to access housing, food stamps, medical care and sometimes even showers or haircuts. Librarians, in turn, have been called upon to play the role of social workers, first responders, therapists and security guards.

Librarians are divided on these evolving tasks. Although many embrace the new role — some voluntarily wear the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone — others feel overwhelmed and unprepared for regular encounters with aggressive or unstable clients.

“Some of my colleagues are very committed to helping people, and they are able to get the job done,” said Elissa Hardy, a trained social worker who until recently supervised a small team of social workers providing services. in the Denver Public Library System. . The city boasts that it has saved about 50 lives since library workers began volunteering for drug overdose training five years ago. Others, Hardy said, are simply uninformed of the realities of the job. They enter the profession by imagining the cozy and hushed neighborhood libraries of their youth.

“And that’s what they think they’re walking in,” she said.

In the United States, more than 160,000 librarians are employed in public libraries and schools, universities, museums, government archives, and the private sector, responsible for managing inventory, helping visitors locate resources, and creating educational programs. Often the position requires that they have a master’s degree or a teaching credential.

But many were ill-prepared for client transformation as substance abuse, untreated psychosis and lack of affordable housing have increasing homeless populations in a wide range of US cities and suburbs, especially on the West Coast.

Amanda Oliver, author of ‘Overdue: Reckoning With the Public Library,’ which recounted nine months she worked at a branch in Washington, D.C., said as a library employee she was legally prohibited to speak publicly about frequent incidents such as patrons passing out drunk, yelling at unseen opponents, and carrying bedbug-infested luggage around the library. This “widespread denial of the way things are” among library directors was a complaint Oliver said he heard echoed by many staff.

The 2022 Urban Trauma Library Study, led by a group of New York-based librarians, surveyed urban library workers and found that nearly 70% said they had encountered patrons whose behavior was violent or aggressive, ranging from ranting bullying and sexual harassment to people drawing guns and knives or throwing staplers at them. Few workers felt supported by their bosses.

“As the social safety net has been dismantled and underfunded, libraries have had to pick up the slack,” the authors wrote, adding that most institutions lack practical guidelines for dealing with traumatic incidents that, over time, can lead to “compassion fatigue”.

Library administrators began to recognize the problem by providing training and hiring staff experienced in social services. Making sure library workers don’t feel traumatized was a big part of his focus during his years with Denver Libraries, Hardy said. She and other library social workers in cities like San Francisco and Washington have worked in recent years to organize training programs for librarians on topics ranging from self-care to strategies for defusing conflict.

About 80% of librarians are women, and the library workforce is older, with almost a third of staff over 55. As in many professions, wages have not kept up with rising costs. According to the American Library Association-Allied Professional Association, the average salary for a public librarian in the United States was $65,339 in 2019the most recent year for which data are available.

Studies confirm that many librarians experiencing burnout.

In Los Angeles County, with more than 60,000 homeless people, recent years have tested the limits of a public library system with more than 80 sites.

“The challenge is that the level of need is off the charts,” Los Angeles City Librarian John Szabo said. “Unfortunately, we are not fully and effectively trained to deal with these issues.”

Libraries began their transition over a decade ago in response to the number of patrons seeking toilets and temporary respite from life on the streets. In 2009, San Francisco decided to officially remedy the situation by hiring a full-time employee library social worker.

Leah Esguerra leads a team of formerly homeless “health and safety associates” who patrol San Francisco’s 28 library sites seeking to connect sick or needy patrons with services big and small, beds of shelter and drug treatment to public showers, a model that has been copied in cities around the world.

“The library is a safe place, even for those who no longer trust the system,” said Esguerra, who worked at a community mental health clinic before becoming the “library lady,” as she is known. sometimes in the street.

But hiring a senior social worker hasn’t erased the many challenges facing San Francisco librarians. Thus, the city has become more aggressive in setting standards of behavior for customers.

In 2014, then-Mayor Ed Lee called on library officials to enforce tougher policies in response to widespread complaints of inappropriate conduct, including indecent exposure and urinating into fireplaces. Shortly after, officials released a modified version code of conduct which explicitly spelled out penalties for violations such as sleeping, fighting, and “depositing bodily fluids on SFPL property.”

The city has installed additional safety measures and taken other measures, such as lowering toilet doors to discourage drug use and sex and installing boxes for disposal of used needles, although people still complain about the conditions at the main library.

Some rural libraries have also sought to make social services more accessible. In Butte County, along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada in Northern California, library workers used a $25,000 state grant to hold information sessions on mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, as well as how to help people access treatment. Books on these subjects have been marked with green labels to make them easier to find, said librarian Sarah Vantrease, who helped create the program. She now works as a library administrator in Sonoma County.

“The library,” Vantrease said, “shouldn’t be just for people who are really good at reading.”

This story was produced by KHNwho publishes California Healthlinean editorially independent service California Health Care Foundation.

This article was taken from courtesy of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health policy research organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


Comments are closed.