Librarians Are Not Your Everything

**Disclaimer-While I have my MLS, I am not currently a librarian. I’m a PhD student in Rhetoric and I’m a graduate research assistant in the TWU library, where I’ve worked for 5 years. I also happen to be taking a library school class as an elective. These posts are part of a weekly reading response. I am not speaking as a library expert. I’m speaking as a student and observer.**

This week’s assigned readings:

  • Queer: A graphic history
  • Information Services to Diverse Populations – Chapter 3
  • McLeod, S. 2019. Overview of Social Identity Theory
  • Individuality and the Group: Advances in Social Identity
  • Hill, N., Tadena, L., & Vaughn, P. (2019). We Are Not a Monolith: Library Outreach to Diverse Populations. (Presentation)
  • This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Excerpts)

The reading I want to focus on this week is Information Services to Diverse Populations, specifically because they talk about library patrons that don’t always get a fair shake, including the unhoused, those with mental illness, and those who have recently been incarcerated. These are some of the most vulnerable patrons that a library will service. The issue that often arises lies in the fact that librarians are not trained to deal with every situation and so a better way needs to be considered. When speaking about some of these vulnerable populations Cooke tells us that:

Perhaps one of the most prevalent invisible impairments is mental illness, which every library deals with, whether they recognize the symptoms or not. Turner (2004, 12) proposes that it is possible to deal with the unanticipated consequences…in the library, without compromising professional ethics and principles and without creating overly stringent policies and procedures that attempt to address every conceivable situation. (2017)

Librarians are often considered to be jacks-of-all-trades but they are not social workers, or nurses. And while many of them have been trained in the use of defibrillators and the application of Narcan when needed, these situations could be better handled by trained healthcare workers. This isn’t just a theory, either. The Pima County Public Library has had registered nurses on staff for many years and they have proven to be incredibly helpful in the day-to-day operations of the library. Having registered nurses on staff takes the pressure off of librarians, who are often expected to be constantly aware of every single situation that can occur when it comes to their patrons. But librarians shouldn’t be expected to automatically know when a patron is displaying signs of physical or mental distress. It’s simply not a sustainable approach but having nurses on staff is a rather simple solution to a very complex problem.. 

And too, libraries are also seeing the benefits of having social workers on staff as well. Having social workers in the library can provide a sort of one-stop-shop for unhoused and recently-incarcerated patrons. Working with the librarians, the social worker can help these patrons when it comes to housing, jobs, even education. And the formerly-incarcerated do need assistance when it comes to reacclimating to life outside. Cooke advises that:

The incarcerated is another diverse population that is far-reaching across library types. In addition to having a dedicated branch or specialty of librarianship—prison librarianship—that works with individuals who are detained, many libraries will serve the patrons once they are released and trying to reacclimatize into society. Even youth services and teen librarians will be working with detained or formerly detained young adults and should be cognizant of including this patron group into the library and the community. (2017)

Depending on their situation, they may not have any family or friends that they can rely on to help them but in order to succeed they need a stable support structure in place to help them find their way. And while Cooke is correct that librarians need to be aware of the specific needs of these patron groups, they also need to be aware of their own limitations when it comes to addressing these needs. It’s okay for librarians to defer to other trained professionals in certain situations. The problem, of course, is in getting city/county governments and school/public library boards to recognize that librarians simply cannot do all the jobs. 

Pop culture has led people to believe that librarians can solve any situation with spunk and gumption and a really fab pair of cat-eye glasses but the real world doesn’t work that way. Many school and public libraries are strained to the breaking point in their attempts to serve their patrons, especially since the coming of the Pandemic Times. 

Having spent too much time on Library Twitter, I know how real the burnout is. Everyday I see more and more librarians who are quitting library work and seeking jobs in other fields because the emotional, physical, and psychological cost is too high. Will having nurses and social workers on staff solve the problems entirely? No, of course not. But they can help to relieve the pressure and allow librarians to focus on the work that they were trained to do, instead of plodding forward day-after-day, working under the expectation that they must be the community’s everything, all the time. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s