Yanna McGraw has a unique role at the Indianapolis Public Library. She’s the library’s first full-time social worker – one of about a dozen employed by libraries across the Midwest.
The library hired McGraw because it was seeing more patrons dealing with complex issues. She’s only been on the job for four months, but McGraw has already worked with library guests dealing with issues like: housing insecurity, difficulty accessing federal stimulus money and challenges finding mental health services.
She recently met a man who had been receiving services from a local AIDS organization and shelter. He needed help getting a prescription filled – but was struggling because he didn’t have the money and lacked access to transportation.
McGraw made some phone calls for him and connected him with a family member, who came to the library to give the man the money to pay for his medication.
McGraw said she is able to assist patrons in ways librarians can’t.
“I'm able to spend that time, pick up the phone, ask the question, send an email to a community partner, if I have that relationship,” McGraw said.
For years, libraries have been a place people turn to for help with problems. But the challenges patrons are dealing with are increasingly complex – beyond the scope of what most librarians are trained to handle. So, some public libraries are turning to licensed social workers to help fill that need.
Indianapolis Public Library Interim CEO John Helling said libraries are one of the few places people can go during the day and not have to spend money.
“We're a safe place, we’re a clean place, where we try to be a helpful place,” Helling said. “And so we do find patrons experiencing just a wide variety of needs that just end up in our building, because we're the only place where they can go.”
A growing need
Beth Wahler, director of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, works with public libraries across the country to understand their needs and suggests ways social workers may be able to help.
Wahler said she has consistently found libraries to be central to their communities. For that reason, library staff are often more keenly aware of their community’s emerging needs than other public entities may be.
“Sometimes they're the first ones to know what gaps [in social services] exist, because those are the issues that are coming in the door with the patron population there,” Wahler said.
Her research has highlighted some of those gaps. Wahler conducted a survey of almost 5,000 people at three Midwest public libraries. Preliminary results, which have not yet been published, show that 10 percent of patrons reported needing help finding a job, 6 percent said they needed mental health assistance and 4 percent needed housing assistance.
These percentages might seem small, Wahler said, but many patrons have multiple needs— many of which are complex and require specialized training to adequately address.
And even with the small percentages, Wahler notes that any given library is still faced with hundreds of patrons in need of assistance.
“There are not enough shelter beds for people who are lacking safe housing; there aren't enough providers for mental health services [or] substance abuse services,” Wahler said. “People have trouble accessing health insurance and medical care. There’s not a livable wage in most communities.”
The problems are made worse by a lack of funding and social services: In many communities, available services have not kept up with the need.
But social workers can help and placing them in libraries makes a lot of sense, she said.
“We are trained to assess and intervene with mental health, substance use, basic needs, poverty related needs, you know, a little bit of everything,” Wahler said.
Easier said than done
Melanie Huggins is president of the Public Library Association, a branch of the national American Library Association.
Huggins said over the past decade, more libraries have been finding ways to partner with social workers. But there are many barriers.
Many libraries struggle to find funding in the budget for these positions and may lack the capacity for plugging social service gaps while also fulfilling their other duties.
Huggins said another roadblock involves challenging the idea that it’s not the library’s job to do this kind of work.
“I think library directors, even if they think it's a really great idea, they still have to balance it with all the other needs that they have in their community, and within their library,” Huggins said.
In Indianapolis, Helling said it’s the responsibility of libraries to meet whatever needs they’re presented with, if they are able to do so.
“And so whatever information these people walk in the door with, that's our responsibility to meet,” Helling said. “Some people wonder if this is outside of scope for us. But I like to think that no, it's absolutely not.”
Open door policy
McGraw compares the library to a day shelter – but with no support for really tough challenges.
One patron she recently helped was struggling to access federal stimulus money he was entitled to. The money was supposed to be distributed to all Americans under certain income thresholds, but the man who asked McGraw for help didn't have an ID, and although he had a job, he hadn’t filed taxes – so he wasn’t able to receive his stimulus check.
“He didn't have all his W-2s,” McGraw said. “So I told him, ‘Hey, go get this as your assignment, let's just do this one thing, one step at a time. When you get that, then come back.’”
She said the next day, the patron did come back and they tackled the next step.
McGraw said the number of people she helps varies day to day.
She has an office on the fourth floor of the Central Library in downtown Indianapolis. Her office hours are posted in various places in the building and she also makes rounds throughout the library to connect with patrons.
Her goal is to find a balance between seeking out patrons who might need assistance and allowing people to make the choice to come to her.
She said her open door policy is how trust is built and relationships are formed — and both are important in social work.
“If my door’s open, come on in,” McGraw said. “And they do. Not even knocking, but they just come in. And I’d rather have it that way, because I want to make that connection.”
McGraw said being a library social worker is her calling.
“Just helping people navigate and make those connections is really important to me,” McGraw said. “And when I go home, I am happy and content that I made a difference. It might be little differences, but it's the difference in some way in someone else's life.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Beth Whaler. That was incorrect. It is Beth Wahler.