Column Description: Looking at the ways libraries are changing to better meet the needs of communities.

The running joke in libraries is the term other duties as assigned. It’s tossed around as we do anything beyond our regular tasks. Wiping a spill off the stairs because maintenance isn’t in yet? Other duties as assigned. Coloring with an antsy toddler so their parent can finish filling out a job application? Other duties as assigned. We say it as a joke until we’re completing tasks we never thought we’d have to complete, tasks beyond our job duties. Talking a patron through a mental health crisis? Other duties as assigned? Responding to an overdose in the bathroom? Other duties as assigned?

Along with this running joke, I also frequently hear librarians are not social workers. While I agree with that, because we are not trained for social work and it is not within our job duties, the discussions recently have been focused on what exactly is our role in our communities. Long gone are the days when libraries were quiet spaces dedicated solely to research. We’re still here to provide our communities with needed resources and information, yet, we also do a lot more.

Almost daily a patron calls me or approaches me at the desk and starts their question with “I didn’t know where else to go/who else to ask...” They come armed with questions, of course. They want to know where to find books on pottery or Dolly Parton or for more information on inflation or vaccines. They want to know what fiction book to read that’ll make them cry/think/escape. They also want to know where to find the application for SNAP or how to write a resume or how to represent themselves in court. They also want to sit for a few hours, wash up in the bathroom, get a COVID test, use a phone, have a cup of coffee, talk to a friendly face, feel safe, feel welcome, and the list goes on and on.

We’re safe spaces, community spaces, and gathering spaces. And we remain one of the few spaces in many areas where people can come and gather, or just be, without expectation. We don’t expect money. We don’t ask questions. We, ideally, don’t pass judgment. And because of that, we’re changing. We need to change. Our communities need us to change. So how do we do that? How do we do that so we aren’t doing jobs we’re not trained for? How do we do that so we aren’t burning out our staff or putting ourselves in unsafe situations? And, is it our role to do so? I’ll always argue yes.

We’re serving our communities, so we have a responsibility to find ways to serve all members of our communities. We push for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and that means more than just creating diverse programs and collections. It also means creating safe, inclusive spaces. Sometimes that looks like diverse programming, yes, but other times it looks like sharps containers in the bathrooms or hiring a social worker. It looks like a diversity audit, but it also looks like working with community groups to bring in vaccine clinics or STI testing. It looks like training staff on trauma-informed care, Narcan, mental health first aid, and so much more. Libraries will not stop acting as people’s first stop when they’re in need, not as long as we remain one of the few available spaces to offer such help.

In my city, DSS frequently sends people to us for assistance. In many areas, libraries exist as warming centers, emergency gathering spots, and/or food distribution sites. Last spring when over three-quarters of our county lost power in an ice storm, our library was one of the few locations open for people to come get warm and access food, water, electricity, and assistance. This isn’t going to change. Nor should it. We should be here for our communities. So, to do that, we need to be open to change. We need to be open to creating spaces that support our communities and their needs. We need to be open to creating spaces that push against the typical library image.

This column is going to explore the different ways libraries are doing this, from hiring social workers to practicing harm reduction strategies to getting rid of security officers to finding ways to connect with local prisons. And as part of this, this column is going to encourage you to ask what our role is and what it should be, and where we’re going in the future.  

Gillian Friedlander is an adult services librarian at the Broome County Public Library in Binghamton, NY. This is her first librarian position, though she has worked in public libraries for many years prior, beginning as the Albany Public Library’s volunteer coordinator. She received her BA in Sociology from the University at Albany in 2016 and her MS in Library and Information Sciences from Simmons University in 2020 (she graduated from her mother’s kitchen over Zoom!). Her library passions are community outreach, accessibility, and creating safe and inclusive spaces for her community members. She also can’t get enough of asking her director hard questions and pushing her coworkers to have tough conversations to better the work they do. Working in urban libraries is where she thrives, and she loves all the challenges and creative opportunities they offer. Reading-wise, she loves queer fiction (the messier the characters the better) graphic novels, books featuring dark dark humor, and poetry of all varieties. Originally from Albany, by way of New York City, Gillian now lives in Binghamton with her four cats. When not at work she loves to hike, spend time adventuring with her partner, bake gluten-free vegan snacks, dig through record shops & used book stories, drink her weight in coffee, and take much-needed naps.