More libraries hiring social workers to help those in need

Posted at 10:50 AM, Jan 07, 2022

Public libraries are a place for people to get information about mental health, housing or food assistance and finding a job.

That's why more public libraries have started hiring social workers to meet the need. It also eliminates barriers for people living in places where it can be difficult to access social worker services.

Beth Wahler, the director of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has been tracking the need for social workers at public libraries.

"In urban communities, it's usually easier to access social work services. But you have to still go through a community mental health center or somebody who's in private practice or substance abuse treatment center," Wahler said. "In rural communities, that can be even more difficult, and people might have to travel long distances to try to access a social worker."

Wahler says that in addition to increasing access, having social workers in libraries eliminates the stigma around seeking help with mental health because walking into a library can be much less intimidating than walking into a treatment center.

Wahler has found there isn't much overall need to speak with a social worker at the library. But when it comes to others who work at the library, it can make a big difference.

"So, even though it might just be 10% of their patrons overall, it may be taking up 50% or 60% of their time trying to figure out how to help these patrons and respond to their needs and answer their questions or handle some sort of crisis that's happening," Wahler said.

She says some libraries are skeptical of offering social work services.

"In just seeing how other libraries are doing it can help ease their mind, so they see it's not a clinical service," Wahler said. "The library isn't becoming a mental health center and it's still fulfilling the primary mission of the library."

Employing a social worker may be an issue for other libraries due to a lack of funding. Wahler says a good alternative can be libraries partnering with colleges that have social work students who may want to help.