Libraries as Community Centers

Libraries are… When you hear the word library, what images come to mind?

  • Books. Movies. Music. Magazines.
  • Computers.
  • Children storytime.
  • A Learning Center.
  • Fun family programs, like Comicopolis @ the White Oak Library.
  • A cool place to read a newspaper in the summer.
  • A warm place to attend a craft class in the winter.
  • In the beginning of each year, a place for tax forms and assistance.
  • Resources.

What would you think if you saw…

  • librarians talking to people about local resources?
  • a teenager hanging out at the library all day?
  • a family come in out of the cold to warm up at the library?
  • someone sleeping in the library?
  • children eating lunch provided by a local food pantry?
  • librarians delivering to people’s homes who can not make it in to the library?


People come to the library for many reasons. Some drop in to read or use a computer. Others are coming for a program – to learn or for some fun. Some of the people are healthy, others are seeking information about their illness. Some have Alzheimer’s and others have mental health concerns. Some of the people are literate, others are getting by with limited vocabulary. xSome of the people are poor, lonely, or homeless. What if the library was a community center for everyone? A place for knowledge and resources? A place where everyone feels welcome and safe? Librarians – as leaders, educators, mentors, and valuable resources of knowledge – are looking at how we can become something for everyone. We are striving to meet the needs of our community.

I have always thought that a library as a community center meant making the building as inviting as possible to as many different people as possible. While in school, my vision of what a library could be broadened. Reading about libraries partnering with community services and hiring social workers (instead of security companies), my image of a library has expanded.

To me, this is not a new, hot trend. Expanding outreach services and including a social worker is the answer. If the library is here for everyone to provide resources and fill the needs of our community, we need to work with knowledgeable and skilled people who can help. The first time I heard about a library embracing local resources from the community and providing them in the library was at the San Francisco Public Library. I read a few stories and thought I want to work here. Leah Esguerra, LMFT, of the San Francisco Public Library, was quoted “The library’s goal is to connect its homeless and indigent patrons to available community resources, where their basic needs for food, shelter, hygiene, and medical attention can be addressed.”

The Oak Park Library in Illinois has developed a program too. I met Robert Simmons in June 2016 during a library meeting. I was beyond excited to talk to him about how the library is developing their outreach program as a model of community engagement. He has developed a plan with Library Director David Seleb, the Outreach Services team, and the library staff. Robert talked about the benefits of a high level of engagement with staff and patrons. He’s leading with results with on-going staff training and updated resources, stronger community connections, more support from local law enforcement, expanded outreach services, and more people using the library.

Having a strong outreach services team with a social worker in the library is beneficial to everyone. Patrons – especially those who are homeless, have mental health problems, or dealing with substance abuse – will have guidance to local services. The library benefits from stronger relationships with local organizations and businesses. The community benefits from having a supportive library providing services to everyone within their community.

I know librarians who are against the concept of hiring social workers in libraries. One concern I have heard is that we do not have enough funding to do ‘what we are supposed to be doing’ already. My question to them is what do you think libraries are ‘supposed to’ be doing? Librarians attend meetings and conferences to develop a knowledge base for helping patrons with special needs, mental health problems, and coping with homelessness. But even an annual training session isn’t enough to give librarians the tools we need to serve our patrons. Librarians directly benefit from having a social worker in the library. What if you could have on-going training and support, have people and a plan in place, and be able to assist your residents? How can we not afford to hire an outreach team equipped with a social worker to network and partner with community leaders, organizations, and businesses that will benefit the patrons and librarians?

The amazing thing about providing these basic resources and filling these basic needs is that the library becomes a true community center. All people feel more comfortable, safer, and want to be there. People start using the library for what most people think it is there for – recall your original images of books, computers, programs, etc.20141025_135729.jpg

I invite you to read the articles and statistics in the links below. I’m inspired by the stories and cannot wait to hear the IFLA report at the upcoming IFLA Congress in Ohio on how libraries are helping homeless people and transforming the library world .

~I’m here to help


Further reading & resources:

ALA. 2016. Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library Engagement. Retrieved from:

ALA. 2016. Serving At-Risk Patrons: Lessons from Library Social Workers. Programming Librarian. Retrieved from:

Blank, Barbara Trainin. 2016. Public Libraries Add Social Workers and Social Programs. Social Worker. Retrieved from:

Bunic, Sanja. 2016. On the front line: Libraries contribute to a sustainable future supporting people experiencing homelessness. IFLA. Retrieved from:

Goldberg, Eleanor. 2016. Library Offers Homeless People Mental Health Services, And It’s Working. Huffington Post. Retrieved from:

Irvall, Birgitta and Niesen, Gyda Skat. 20015. Access to libraries for persons with disabilities – Checklist. IFLA. Retrieved from:

Inklebarger, Timothy. 2016. Library beefs up social work approach: New model emphasizes community outreach. Oak Park. Retrieved from:

Journalist’s Resources. 2014. Homelessness in the United States: Trends and demographics. Retrieved from:

Quinton, Sophie. 2016. Enlisting Public Libraries to Help Fight Homelessness. Pew Trusts. Retrieved from:

SAMHSA. 2016. Homelessness: Programs and Resources. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from:

Schering, Steve. 2016. Library hires employee to work with homeless, at-risk people. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from:

Williams, Tina. 2016. Mental Health Library Patrons. Tina Here To Help. Retrieved from:

Zettervall, Sara. 2013. Deposit Collections in Homeless Shelters. Public Libraries Online. Retrieved from: