Today, one of the key missions of libraries remains the provision of equal access of information to all patrons, regardless of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or socioeconomic status (ALA, 2016). In a perfect society, libraries would be able to provide these services to each and every one of their patrons without issue. It seems, perhaps, a little unnecessary to point out that we do not live in a perfect society.
The harsh reality is that many of our patrons are plagued by a number of social ills, ranging from illiteracy to hunger to persistent homelessness (ALA, 2016). As the divide in wealth continues to grow throughout the United States – indeed, throughout the world – libraries have come to serve not only as information centers, but as safe spaces where individuals from all walks of life find themselves both welcome and respected. (Hines, 2015; Luo et al., 2012).
In our constant fight for the democratization of information, libraries have come, whether purposefully or inadvertently, to represent a force of both justice and stability within an often tumultuous social landscape. Given our mission, it is not surprising that libraries now find themselves in a unique position to address a number of the inequalities that exist within our communities. As Hines (2015) points out, libraries “naturally attract those seeking information and assistance for a variety of needs, including many who are intimidated by formal social service agency settings.” Institutions like the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) and the Denver Public Library (DPL) have wholeheartedly embraced this position – and they are not alone.
In 2009, SFPL became the first public library in the United States to bring a certified psychiatric social worker – Leah Esguerra – onto their staff (Goldberg, 2016). Since that time, Esguerra has helped over 800 individuals enroll in social and mental health services. As if this weren’t enough, Esguerra has also helped roughly 150 homeless individuals attain permanent housing and has led a vocational rehabilitation program that gives formerly homeless individuals the ability to work within the library itself as Health and Safety Associates (Goldberg, 2016).
DPL, on the other hand, has decided to bring their services to their patrons (and future patrons) themselves. A technology team visits the local day shelter to provide the homeless and socioeconomically disadvantaged with classes that focus on “job interviewing techniques and technology skills” – skills that many of these individuals are in desperate need of (Hines, 2015). Attendees are also given tokens for public transportation so that they can sign up for a library card if needed at no cost to them.
Public libraries across the nation, including libraries in New York, Arizona, Texas, and Washington, D.C., have been changing lives one patron at a time. With such fantastic examples of leadership in our field laid before us, the real question is: how can the rest of us get involved?