Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Social Triage @ Your Library

There is apparently no end to the problems librarians are supposed to deal with these days. As the lead sentence of an article on mental health first aid training for librarians says, “The job description of a librarian goes far beyond recommending books and organizing shelves — they’re often the first responders when someone needs help in the library.”

We could certainly quibble about the job description. Recommending books and organizing shelves haven’t exhausted the job description of librarians pretty much ever.

Somebody, after all, has to catalog all those books, but catalogers are forgotten so often they’re probably used to it by now, if libraries even still have catalogers.

And they are often first responders when someone needs help in the library. Need help finding information? Ask a librarian! Need help clearing a printer jam? Ask a librarian!

The help provided was never insignificant, but it was at least once upon a time confined to things related to goods and services the library provided. If the library didn’t provide printers, it’s not like people would just bring in their own printers when they needed a jam cleared.

But now librarians are supposed to be prepared to address all social problems that might be problematic with a public library, and that’s pretty much all of them. But why? What’s changed where librarians and library staff are now expected to deal with every social problem, from drug overdoses to homelessness to mental illness?

It can’t be that these problems only recently came into existence. While the white-person opioid epidemic is relatively new, it’s not like people weren’t overdosing in Philadelphia or San Francisco until just recently.

Homelessness has been a problem for decades, and yet libraries didn’t hire social workers to deal with their homeless patrons.

Likewise for mental health issues. Was it either that mentally ill people avoided libraries until recently, or libraries didn’t feel the need to address the problem?

Clearly the latter, unless we go back to the days when anyone who seemed remotely mentally ill or even slightly eccentric was locked away somewhere.

Why now, though? The only answers that makes sense are either that there are significantly more drug addicts, homeless people, and mentally ill people in libraries, or that libraries for some reason have started to respond more, or both.

Based on reading the news articles, both are probably true to some extent. We can quibble about whether there’s been a different and racially tinged social response to the crack epidemic in the 1980s and the opioid epidemic today, but there are people now overdosing in or near public libraries.

As for the prevalence of mental illness, we could also quibble about whether everyone who is diagnosed with a mental illness really has a serious problem or whether Big Pharma and Big Insurance benefit financially from increasingly broad diagnostics. Regardless, mental illness is more public if not really more prevalent.

But why are libraries feeling the need to respond? There are plenty of other social problems that libraries don’t respond to.

Librarians are being trained to deal with homelessness and mental illness, and some people probably think library schools should start teaching classes in that.

However, despite some increasing emphasis on security, librarians aren’t being trained to repel terrorist attacks. If someone overdoses in a library, librarians might administer Narcan, but if someone pulls out an assault rifle and started shooting patrons librarians nowhere are being trained to pull out their own weapons and shoot the offender.

There are millions of children in the country without steady access to meals, but libraries aren’t turning into food kitchens.

Why not? We can’t answer that it’s not what librarians are trained to do, because we’ve crossed some sort of line where librarians are trained to do all sorts of things one wouldn’t expect.

Libraries aren’t really doing anything to deal with problems of homelessness. Otherwise, they would provide food, laundries, and bathing facilities.

Libraries aren’t really doing anything to deal with drug addicts. Otherwise, they would provide treatment centers.

And libraries aren’t really doing anything about the problems of the mentally ill. And I have no idea what they would even do to start.

Libraries instead have become inadequate treatment centers for social problems they can’t entirely avoid but can’t really do anything about. Librarians can’t really help people with non-library issues, but they can spot them and talk to people and maybe avoid a full on crisis within the library.

If children started literally starving to death in libraries, the libraries would probably start serving meals.

That’s not a bad thing. Fewer drug overdoses, suicides, or violent episodes is a good thing.

But in the case of libraries, it’s a forced thing. Librarians have, or at least used to have, a social mission. In some libraries, the mission has shifted from books, information, and literacy to trying to prevent awful things from happening in the library.

Libraries have been forced into social triage, and it’s probably not that great for anyone.


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. “If children started literally starving to death in libraries, the libraries would probably start serving meals.”
    LMAO – – lots of libraries serve lunches as part of some government program, since kids can’t get their government-provided lunch when school is not in session.

  2. A significant number of urban public libraries are participating in federally funded summer meals programs, wherein they distribute daily lunches to youth under the age of 18. There’s less and less we don’t do and aren’t being asked to do and I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, provided we’re given adequate resources and training.

  3. As you suggested, there are a lot of societal changes that have resulted in the increasing number of people with significant problems showing up in public libraries. As more and more outlets for assistance are shut down, libraries remain one of the few spaces that are open to the public and staffed for extended hours. So yes, there is more need in libraries and libraries are responding to that need out of necessity. But libraries are and always have been about connecting people to information. So maybe in the past the librarian would have looked up the name of a treatment center, or a food pantry, or a free clinic, and sent the patron there. But as those places become harder and harder to find, why shouldn’t we close the gap between the patron and the information they’re seeking? Why shouldn’t we invite those services inside our doors? We remain a neutral, public place that is free and open to all: we should do what we can to connect people to the services that they need, even if that means hiring staff who can provide those services directly. There will still be a place for reader’s advisory and research skills, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t also be a place for social service and community connections.

  4. finalyalibrarian says:

    I see these current library issues as symptoms of the lack of services provided by local governments. As everything gets more expensive and tax revenue remains stable, governments are forced to make harder choices about what they can pay for. Library leadership has had an issue with self-relevancy for decades so we offer our facilities and staff (there anyway) to provide these additional non-library services to remain relevant and therefore retain or increase funding. “Look what we are doing to keep these people out of your hair and off the front pages!”

    So it is a symptom of general leftist style local governance and lack of spine in our profession.

  5. ThreeTimesALaDay says:

    Completely agree! Helping is important and at the core of our profession (I remind myself of this during conference season), – but to help or to enable- and what about other patrons and staff- are their needs for quite, for calm, for order and safety not important? We seem to be both addressing a crisis and priming ourselves for only serving the squeakiest of wheels- maybe to our detriment or not who knows? I do think that this is a potentially dangerous path for our patrons and really for library staff.

  6. Mallory says:

    “Libraries aren’t really doing anything to deal with problems of homelessness. Otherwise, they would provide food, laundries, and bathing facilities”

    We do at my library, and I would venture to say we’re not the only ones. We have a “take a can, leave a can” food shelf, and we also hand out laundry vouchers to patrons whose odor is so bad as to disrupt others.

  7. Not every library has the resources available to do that, though. My library has the numbers of the various shelters and food pantries that we hand out. And we have an agreement with one of them that people staying there can get an internet card for thirty days to help them search for jobs.

  8. I agree with you mallory.

  9. Libraries today are not the libraries of my youth..which has gone awhile ago…I remember when research involved actual intellectually written books that one had to find, read, take notes from and organize into your outline..Of course the skill of research is gone, as is some librarian’s skill at finding books…I have been told at the reference desk when I am searching for a book for specific information ..just Google it..really?? Sometimes what you google is not correct..and wholly inadequate.

  10. Joneser says:

    Wow. You could find the money to hire additional staff?? I’d love for us to be able to have enough staff just for the things you believe will “still have a place”. Reminds me of a director I had who used us as a two-year stepping-stone and didn’t bother to actually deal with petty issues.

  11. Joneser says:

    Please enlighten us on what “general leftist style local governance” is.

  12. It seems that the libraries I see being discussed here are not really libraries. If these are not really libraries then what are they? The only reason they have become what is described is because they have been encouraged or caused to become such. This is nonsense.

    It librarians don’t like what’s happening to the libraries, then why are they allowing it, even participating in it? I don’t buy the line that if the libraries don’t provide for the homeless, drug addicted, and other such social problems then no one will. In my opinion, if this has become a problem, then it’s only because it has been made into a problem by the very people who now complain about it.

    What make the librarians feel the whole weight of social burden because they loan books?

    I really don’t get this at all.

  13. I’ve worked in a library for 10 years. I can tell you why we feel the “whole weight of social burden because [we] loan books.” It’s because people who are homeless and/or have severe mental health issues want to borrow books. They want to get on the internet (many of them want to do so in order to look for jobs). They want to print their resumes and their craigslist ads and bus schedules. They come to the library seeking help, and it is our job to provide the information they need. We feel the “weight of social burden” because they are part of society, and they deserve information. They come to us seeking it, and unfortunately we are not trained in how best to provide it. Many of them cannot communicate in the same way as you or I. They have a question that they can’t get out, and they get frustrated. How do you help someone who is having trouble communicating what they need? We need training for that. How do you help someone who was quietly reading, and then suddenly has an episode? Do they not deserve to be in the library simply because they sometimes have bad days? Of course they deserve to be in the library- we are a public space. And we need to be equipped to help them.

  14. Megz, what you’re describing is exactly what we should be doing. If your library doesn’t have resources to add staff or services, then get creative. And Joneser, who said anything about hiring additional staff? As they happen, fill vacancies on your staff with people who can help with the issues your community is facing. I’ve been managing these sorts of issues with limited staff and limited budgets for 15 years, and I can say with absolute certainty, it can be done. Respond to what your community is asking for and get creative!

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