Public libraries have long been one of the nation’s great equalizers. With a simple library card, people of all ages and backgrounds have access to everything from books to 3D printers to the internet. There’s no income requirement or background check. Just show your card.
Increasingly, that card also gives residents access to social services.
The Cambridge Public Library, for example, recently hired its first social worker trained to help homeless people and those dealing with addiction -- who often find safe haven among the stacks. That can mean anything from finding someone a bed for the night to connecting them with treatment programs. The Cambridge social worker, Marie Mathieu, speaks English, Spanish and Haitian Creole, which also allows her to help immigrant families deal with government paperwork.
“Libraries are the epicenter of information. So my hope is to make the Cambridge Public Library kind of like a toolbox that houses all the tools that people have at their disposal,” Mathieu told the Boston Globe. “That, I think, is kind of the beauty of my role — the role has a broad scope, so I have the opportunity to work with various populations, all of them being under-served.”
The trend is gaining momentum. Nationwide, there were about 100 libraries with social workers on staff in 2019, up from fewer than a dozen in 2013. And many libraries, while not adding to staff, are forming partnerships with local social service organizations. The Boston Public Library works with the Pine Street Inn. Locally, Gloucester’s Sawyer Free Library has worked closely with The Grace Center, which provides daytime services for the homeless and others in need.
There’s no argument that libraries are still relevant, even in the digital age. They often serve as the last resort for those looking for help, as Amy Schofield wrote for the American Library Association’s website:
“Our social workers are able to provide (the social work word for patron) consultations for questions that require subject expertise: How can I get health insurance? Why did I receive this letter that my benefits are being canceled? Where can I apply for food stamps? They offer guidance that librarians aren’t able to: assisting with phone calls, providing follow-up help, and offering detailed insider information.
“Patrons cross through our doors with these questions because they are seeking compassion,” wrote Schofield, “and they know the library is the place to get it.”
The practice is simply good public policy -- making it easier to residents to access services they need most. It’s something libraries have been doing for years.