People don’t go to the library only when they need to borrow a book. Sometimes they go because they need a job or an apartment. Sometimes they just need to get warm.

Public libraries around the country have become unofficial service hubs for people whose needs go far beyond getting on the waiting list for the latest best-seller. People who are homeless and people who have mental illness or substance use disorders often end up in public libraries because they have no here else to go. And libraries, including the Portland Public Library, are stepping up to the challenge by putting a social worker on staff.

Some people will perceive a library needing to hire a mental health professional as a sign of social decline, but it makes more sense to see it as a positive development, even if it is not how libraries were originally set up. Libraries, like schools, jails and emergency rooms, are among the public institutions that can do something about a community mental health system that is not functioning. Doing that doesn’t get in the way of a library performing its core mission – in fact, it enables the library to do a better job.

A library is a great place to reach out to people who need help. There is no stigma to visiting a local library, as there might be with a clinic or a homeless shelter. The doors are open to everyone, and the facilities are used by every stratum of society. Library staff talk to patrons and get to know them. They can introduce patrons to a social service system that isn’t always easy to access.

And taking on this challenge instead of ignoring it keeps the library a comfortable place for its traditional clientele. In a recent social media post, the Portland library staff said they were proud of the facility’s role as a free public space that is open to the whole community: “Homelessness and mental illness are complex issues; however, most urban libraries, including Portland Public Library, rise to meet the realities of our diverse communities. We are grateful for our trained staff and onsite social worker for creating a safe and welcoming space for all of our patrons.”

The information revolution has changed the role of libraries in ways that could not have been imagined a generation ago. But it hasn’t made them less important as centers of civic life. It’s encouraging to see libraries step up to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

 

 

 


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