Social workers now available at four branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library will offer some counseling services and help patrons with other tasks such as filling out forms for disability benefits.
Representatives of the library system said they decided to offer the services because so many people were coming in with questions that needed the expertise of a social worker.
“A lot of what we were doing was overlapping into the social work field,” said Herbert Malveaux, the Pratt’s assistant chief of neighborhood library services. “People come to the library for all types of information.”
The social workers, who are graduate students from the University of Maryland School of Social Work, will be located at the Pennsylvania Avenue, Hamilton, Brooklyn and Southeast Anchor branches. Two interns will be available two to three days a week for several hours at each of the branches. A field instructor, who is a licensed social worker, will roam the branches and offer some counseling.
The social worker program is the latest example of the way libraries have evolved into more than places to check out books.
The Pratt offers classes on building drones, career center services and yoga instruction. Two years ago, the library system launched the “lawyers in the library” program, which makes attorneys from Maryland Legal Aid available to offer legal advice.
This summer the library staffs in Harford, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties announced they would begin to offer training to staff in administering naloxone, the drug used to reduce opioid overdoses.
In many neighborhoods, library branches have become community hubs, where people come to use the computer or just cool off on a hot summer day.
Several library systems around the country also have added social workers in recent years, including Washington, D.C., Denver and San Francisco. Some library systems, including Tucson, Ariz., bring nurses into the library.
“Libraries have been bringing in social workers as a solution and a national extension of the work that we do,” said Pam Sandlian Smith, president of the Public Library Association and director of a Colorado library. “As a profession we are always trying to find better ways to connect people to the services they need.”
San Francisco hired social worker Leah Esguerra in 2009 as it worked to aid a large homeless population that often sought refuge in its library branches. Over the years, Esguerra has connected people to services where they could get food, stable housing, health care and even jobs. It has helped many people get back onto their feet.
“Eventually they can come back to the library for what is intended instead of sleeping there or using the bathroom to take a bath,” she said.
The Denver Public Library hired its first social worker two years ago and a second one a year later to help the people who came into its branches with requests about services. The system will add two more social workers next year.
Denver library officials said dedicated social workers have the expertise and time to more quickly connect people to services. They also can follow up with them later.
“This is really critical because a lot of people need help right now,” said Michelle Jeske, director of the Denver Public Library. “A lot of these resources are hard to find and hard to navigate for people when they are at their best.”
The Enoch Pratt received $136,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and $15,000 from the PNC Foundation to launch the program. Part of the money will be used to hire a full-time social worker next year.
No appointment is needed to see the social workers. They can be spotted sitting at a table with red a sign identifying them. Each branch also will have private rooms available where the social workers can take people who don’t want to talk out in the open.
The program has been up and running for a few weeks and patrons are still learning that the services are available. But the social workers and library staff said they expect the word to spread quickly. That’s what happened with the “lawyers in the library” program.
They already have helped some people. One social worker helped a woman fill out an application for disability benefits. The woman had been sitting at the computer crying and the social worker asked her what was wrong.
At the Pennsylvania Avenue Branch, Sara Haile, one of the graduate student social workers, helped a homeless woman and her child find a place to stay.
“I’m hoping that as we help more people others will realize what we can do and come to us for services,” Haile said.
The social workers also will work to create new programs at the library and help build on programs that already exist. At the Hamilton location, one of the social workers is starting a group for teenagers.
“The idea is the student will identify existing programs that need help,” said Lane Victorson, director of community organizing and social work community outreach services at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. ‘”If we have 50 kids in there after school, let’s develop a homework club.”
They also want to offer some reprieve to the librarians.
“The librarians have a lot on their plate,” said Kimberly Street, the faculty clinical instructor who will oversee the eight student social workers. “We hope that as a team we can do what they’re already doing by default.”
Victorson said seeing a social worker could become part of the culture of the library.
“Somebody might go to the library just to get on the internet or check out a book or somebody might go to the library just to talk to a social worker,” he said.