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Homelessness Classes @ Your Library School

The Library as Homeless Shelter is a common theme for articles these days, so this one on the Denver Public Library and its efforts to serve the homeless is no surprise.

What is a little surprising is the recommendation by two people interviewed for the article that library schools should offer classes in serving homeless people.

Here’s the relevant portion of the article:

She admits, universities could better prepare librarians for that environment. She hasn’t found a library science program that has a class just on how to serve the homeless. The topic is explored in an existing DU class, and faculty are considering making it a requirement.

“It’s certainly one that helps students dig pretty deeply into understanding, how do I empathize with this other person that may smell bad or, won’t look me in the eye?” Stansbury says.

DPL social worker Elissa Hardy gets exactly where Stansbury is coming from.

“People don’t go into the field of library science thinking they’re going to be working in a homeless shelter essentially,” Hardy says.

It should be noted that neither of the two people are librarians working in libraries. Stansbury is the head of the library school at the University of Denver.

That seems to me an important point. Neither of these people have chosen to make a career as public librarians.

We do hear in the article from someone who has. “Those of us who went to grad school to be librarians didn’t go to grad school to be social workers…. And were in fact, kind of bridging that role a little bit in ways that were not necessarily comfortable for us.”

Here we have a potential conflict. The head of the library school not only wants some instruction in dealing with the homeless in libraries, and the faculty are considering making it a requirement, but the librarian interviewed acknowledged that people don’t go to library school to be social workers.

Even if some of them did go to library school to be social workers, instead of going to social work school, a lot of people going to library school don’t plan to be public librarians, and it’s rare that libraries other than public libraries become de facto homeless shelters during the day.

If you weren’t planning on that route, would you really want required instruction in how to work with homeless people? Wouldn’t there likely be other classes that would be more beneficial to your future career?

The actual librarian quoted is glad that DPL has a social worker, because that’s the sort of work librarians didn’t go to graduate school to do. The implication is pretty clear: if librarians wanted to spend their lives working with the homeless, they’d have become social workers instead.

The blending of the two isn’t usually something librarians like. It’s not just that they’re not trained to deal with the problems, which they aren’t, but they don’t have any strong interest in the issue at all or they would do something else with their lives.

Public librarians often love helping the public, but in specifically librarian kind of ways. They think they’re going to save the world one library card at a time by something something reading something something social justice.

If social work training becomes a required part of library school curricula, that would send a definite signal to a lot of people that they don’t want to become librarians, and maybe a good way to nip their starry-eyed idealism in the bud.

If, as the social worker claims, public librarians are “going to be working in a homeless shelter essentially,” it would be great if library schools made that very clear so that all the people who don’t want to work in homeless shelters can avoid library school and go do something else with their lives.

I can even imagine a library school interview, if they still do those:

“Why do you want to be a librarian?”

“So I can connect the public with information and spread a love of reading throughout the community!”

“Do you realize you’ll be working in a homeless shelter essentially?”

“Would I still get to spread a love of reading throughout the community?”

“Also, you wouldn’t be paid very much.”

Some students might like that sort of thing, but probably not the majority.



  1. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    Here’s and Earth shattering idea… Instead of making librarians have to expand the scope of their employment to include social work, why not advocate to put a social worker on the payroll? We hire accountants to take care of our bookkeeping needs. We hire people who specialize in security services to keep order. We hire janitors to keep our facilities clean. Why not hire a social worker? (It’s not like they get paid any better than librarians) That way, librarians could work the job for which they got their degree.

    And, perhaps the Denver Public Library can make some referrals for their homeless clientele to visit the U of Denver professor during her office hours so she can work some of her magic.

  2. J Rodriguez says:

    Two thumbs up for this post! Yes, I want to help people by something something books something something reading, but no, I do not want to be a social worker. And no, I don’t think there are any social justice ends that will be met by how the library addresses the homeless in their community.

  3. J Rodriguez says:

    I forgot to add: Every book its reader, not every library a platform for promoting your pet social philosophy.

  4. And yet, in the largely upper-class community where I work, we have patrons who are homeless, mentally ill or disabled, hungry or with other problems that make them challenging to serve. We’re not large enough or well – funded enough to add a social worker to our staff, so any help for our staff in learning how to meet the needs of such patrons and in personally coping with the stresses of helping them is important. Pre-service and continuing education in working with these populations are very welcome. If prospective public librarians don’t want to work with homeless or otherwise distressed patrons, they may be well-advised to reconsider their career goals. This is the reality in a lot more communities than one might guess.

    • Our branch is in the same situation. Libraries serve a wide-range of people, and the people who tend to need more service are down and out in some way. I don’t resenting having to help these people, but I do resent that we’re not really trained to deal with it. We have three sets of training for people who break library rules, but none to account for the challenges of serving the mentally ill or the financially disenfranchised.

  5. Melissa says:

    H0w should libraries and library schools address, not only homeless populations but other diverse populations as well? Perhaps a required course is not the way to go, but having a class that addresses real problems that librarians will face in the field is something that is lacking in LIS programs. I work at an academic institution in an urban area, and I absolutely work with homeless populations on a regular basis. It’s not just public libraries. People don’t go to library school to become social workers but are still faced with those situations regardless. I think we could do a better job to prepare students for realities they may face when working with homeless, rural, low income, immigrant, and other diverse populations. I’d rather library schools be transparent about realities than idealistic.

  6. feldspar says:

    Why not make it an unrequired course in the library school curriculum?

  7. Most librarians didn’t go to school to be tech support either, but at my branch, we are daily called on to help people navigate computers and devices. My system is also implementing “curbside service” next month, where staff will be obligate to check out and run materials out to a patron’s car, but none of us went to school to be Sonic servers, either. Library workers are asked to do a lot, and I think it’s going to keep going that way. The library’s purpose, whether we like or not, is to help people using the resources and skills we have.

  8. I feel that as a public library, we are in the *information* business. And that includes helping the homeless with their needs just as much as helping Missy with her report on George Washington. Or Mrs. Jones with the newest James Patterson book. It’s all information.

    • Yes, that is all information. But cleaning human feces from the floor and furniture in an understaffed public library is NOT information. And yes, it’s happened aplenty. In fact, it happened in the academic library in which I was working, which was also open to community members. And since Facilities didn’t come on until after 11 pm, we cleaned it up. I support the rights of the homeless to use a public library, but not their right, or anyone else’s, to misuse it.

    • I absolutely agree with what you’re saying. But can you say with absolute certainty that it was a homeless person who did it? I’m not saying it wasn’t but we’ve had similar messes from people who aren’t homeless, just nasty.

  9. Jasmine says:

    Let’s be clear – just bc you have a social worker on staff does not mean the rest of the staff won’t have to interact with people experiencing homelessness. It is not a magic cure for the issues libraries deal with regarding people experiencing homelessness. But yes, library schools should prepare students for the realities of public library work, including working with people in poverty, in general.

  10. They can make a course like this required after they make far more essential things required. Library management, for example. Unless they also have an MBA or MPA, few librarians have any training in preparing and managing budgets, hiring or firing, staff development, benefits management, fundraising, or project management, yet most will eventually do some or all of those things regardless of which type of library they work in. Unless you went the school media track, you probably didn’t get any training in how to teach, either, and that too is a growing part of librarians’ responsibilities. The ALA needs to do a serious re-evaluation of what they consider to be an essential part of the curriculum required for accreditation, to address the fact that librarians’ job descriptions have changed enormously over the last 20 years.

    • I agree wholeheartedly. We need to evolve as society evolves or we become expendable. We have to fight hard enough for funding as it is!

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