Do libraries need social workers on staff? Some librarians say yes

As London Public Library in southwestern Ontario commits to adding a full-time addiction and mental health specialist to its staff, experts say more social work training and support is exactly what urban libraries need.

London, Ont., is the latest library to hire a full-time worker from the Canadian Mental Health Association

A man takes refuge in a downtown public library. As social services are cut in communities, the complex needs of patrons can make librarians' jobs difficult, says Heather Hill, an accessibility in public libraries at the University of Western Ontario in London. (David Horemans/CBC)

Librarians have always known their work is about people, as much as it's about books. But as patrons to downtown branches change to include more people with complex mental health and addiction issues, some librarians say they need new skills and better help.

This week, the public library in London, Ont., said it would be hiring a full-time addiction and mental health specialist from the Canadian Mental Health Association to its staff, a step other libraries in bigger urban centres have also taken.

"Many members of our community, in London, are struggling. And there are inadequate supports for the community, and this leaves the public library as one of these places to go to stay warm, or cool, that is available to anybody in the public," said Heather Hill, chair of Western University's Master of Library and Information Science program.

Last week, a security guard at the London Public Library's central branch was left with a concussion and minor injuries as he was trying to keep a barred patron from entering the library

Staff have said there is a growing problem, and Hill understands the concerns. She said librarians are typically in one of two positions: desperate to help or overwhelmed. 

Some are feeling: This is way too much.- Heather Hill, expert: public library accessibility, Western University

"Some are feeling that this is way too much," said Hill. "Some are feeling that we're expected to continually add to our job description until we're burned out. And some are trying to figure out where that balance is." 

Hill said Western's master's program does include some coursework that helps prepare graduates for these realities, but most public library staff don't have that degree. 

"I'm the only person with [my master's degree] at my library," said Erika Heesen, past president of the Ontario Public Library Association. 

Heesen works in a 10-person community library in Perth outside Ottawa, and her operating budget is too small to give staff the support she really wants to provide. 

"We can't afford some of the training that we would love to have," said Heesen. "Unfortunately that's not something that's within our reach."

After a recent incident of physical violence at London's central library, Western University Master of Library and Information Science chair Heather Hill tells London Morning how libraries are rethinking the role of librarians and other staff.

Instead, she does train staff so they know who to call if a patron is ever in crisis, staff never work alone, and each is equipped with a panic button in case of personal danger.

"There is a point where we have to step back and rely on our local police or EMS to step in and handle that situation — if it is enough of an emergency."

Library work has always been a blend of people and paperbacks, but as libraries have shifted to become community hubs, they may need to provide staff with social services training or hire dedicated social workers. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

But if budget was no consideration, she'd hire trained social workers to be embedded in the library. It's been tried in places like Mississauga, Ont., and Edmonton — and has worked. 

"There's certainly the need," said Heesen. "I think that would provide the best of both worlds."

Hill agrees, saying the vast majority of library workers don't get formal training, so a more ideal setup is to bring properly trained social workers on staff. 

"They're the ones who have the training and supports, and they know how to do this role in the way that library staff don't."

The London Public Library says the new staff member, supplied by Canadian Mental Health Association Middlesex, starts work in April. They will spend four days a week at the central branch and Wednesdays at the Crouch branch. 


Jackie Sharkey is a producer for CBC News in Kitchener-Waterloo and an occasional guest host. She has been been based in Kitchener, Ont., since the station was created in 2013, after working for CBC in Kelowna, B.C., Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.


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