Role Clarity

It’s the nature of public libraries to welcome the entire community—including patrons experiencing some type of crisis in their lives such as homelessness, drug addiction or a mental health issue. And that raises questions about how libraries and their staffs should respond.

“For example, when someone overdoses in a public library restroom, should a librarian be prepared to intervene, and perhaps administer Narcan to block the effects of opioids?” asks Rachel Williams, an assistant professor at the School of Library and Information Science.

The Boston Public Library (BPL) is wrestling with just such questions, and Williams is leading an interdisciplinary search for possible answers in collaboration with Assistant Professor Lydia Ogden of the School of Social Work; a grant from the New England Region of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine is supporting the project. The pair is analyzing the results of a series of summer focus groups. The follow-up will include workshops for librarians and looking at what role social workers could or should play in the BPL system; one possibility might be enlisting interns from the School of Social Work.

“Many people feel more comfortable going to a library than to a crisis center or an emergency room,” says Ogden. “Instead of placing you on the fringes of society, libraries put you in the calm center of it.”