Making Connections: Libraries and Essential Human Services

Kathleen Gesinger /

Little Free Library Dedication (39) images via Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity on FlickrThere are times when the needs of a patron goes beyond our immediate services or an individual's comfort zone. You can probably think of a recent example right now. Knowing where to refer a customer or who to call in our communities can really help. When library staff reach out and connect with other community social service groups, we are adding new resources to our personal, staff, and community collections. Building personal relationships with agencies and individuals is an important step to nurturing our community resources. When we know just the right person or agency, we are offering a new source of information. Even handing a phone over to someone ready and able to help can mean the difference between barely surviving and thriving.

In another great collaboration between WebJunction and TechSoup, Crystal Schimpf, TechSoup for Libraries, moderated a wonderful conversation with 3 different librarians from across the US who are working to raise awareness about community needs, the many services already being offered, and how that awareness can bring new solutions. These needs can be extremely personal, and difficult to talk about, for both library staff and customers. Luckily there are trained professionals outside libraries, and sometimes directly in libraries, to offer additional support, resources, and hope.

Suzanne Moore, Ashe County Librarian, Ashe County Public Library (NC), shared her library's approach to opening meaningful conversations around health and wellness. Centered around seven key dimensions to wellness: social, emotional, spiritual, environmental, occupational, intellectual and physical wellness, the Ashe Wellness Circle sought to raise awareness of the many facets of wellness.

One approach was offering a twist on book clubs, offering non-fiction titles that were focused on wellness topics like depression, heart-health, or stroke awareness. Another approach was for library staff to directly offer new learning opportunities around clean eating, emotional wellness for victims of domestic violence, or financial fraud awareness. The Wellness Circle reminds us that we cannot simply look at an individual and assume we know how they're doing. It's not always so obvious. Although, sometimes, there are signs that our customers need help.

Nearly 2 years ago, when her small community lost 160 jobs overnight, Diane Adams witnessed the power of having a local community network in place. Because local service providers already knew one another, within one month they were able to quickly coordinate a Community Resource Fair and provide a wide-range of resources available for members directly in their community.

As Library Director, International Falls Public Library (MN), Diane has been in on the early stages of an informal group of social service agencies that get together to share their collective resource knowledge and coordinate delivery of resources. They meet bi-monthly, at rotating locations around the county, and anyone is welcome to attend. While it may be informal, the information sharing is critical. Meeting together with local nonprofits, religious organizations, city and county government agencies, to name just a few, they realized the power of coming together and sharing, around the table, who they are, the organizations they represent, and what is happening. Having a real sense of who is doing the work, who they are reaching, and the evolving needs in their community means the library and service agencies feel ready to answer questions and refer their neighbors to the best resource possible.

When Jasmine Africawala, Community Engagement Administrator, Dallas Public Library (TX), introduced the goals of her library's program, Coffee & Conversations, she shared that for their customers experiencing homelessness it was most important for everyone to remember that these individuals are customers first.

This program builds awareness within the library around what individuals experiencing homelessness are really going through and how the library can provide space, support, and conversation. Being heard and treated as someone who is welcome and invited into the library matters. Being able to openly and sometimes humorously talk about the impact of specific behaviors on the library, and the impact of some library policies on individuals experiencing homelessness, goes a long way.

It is especially impactful when those in the room are currently or recently homeless. You just don't know unless you've been there. The next best thing may be to listen, be ready to hear new things, and share a nice cup of coffee, hands-on arts and crafts, spoken word, or agency information, with the person next to you. What comes out of that can in fact change perceptions or even library policies. After their program got off the ground 80% of Dallas Public Library staff said their attitude toward individuals experiencing homeless changed.

The Coffee & Conversation program at the Dallas Public Library has these goals:

Jasmine shared great tips for coordinating this program, providing insight into who may best facilitate such conversations. It isn't always about title, it can also be about finding the right fit or the "people-people" in your library that are able to connect with a wide-range of people and approaches the program with authenticity and respect.

Excited to learn more?

Start here: The Community Connector: Referring Social Services at the Library