Yanna McGraw works at the Central Library in downtown Indianapolis. A big part of her job is building relationships with visitors and helping answer their questions. But the information she provides is rarely about books.
Instead, McGraw answers queries about the workings of the Department of Child Services. Or she helps connect patrons with mental health resources. Sometimes she helps someone find a warm place to stay for the night. McGraw is the library's first full-time social worker — one of about a dozen employed by libraries across the Midwest.
The Indianapolis Public Library hired McGraw because it was seeing more patrons dealing with complex life issues. She's only been on the job about five months, but McGraw has already worked with library guests dealing with housing insecurity and difficulty accessing federal stimulus money, among other challenges.
She recently met a man who had been receiving services from a local AIDS organization and staying at a homeless shelter. He needed help getting a prescription filled, but he was struggling because he didn't have the money and lacked access to transportation.
McGraw made some phone calls for him and connected him with a family member, who brought the man the money to pay for his medication. McGraw says she is able to assist in ways librarians can't. "I'm able to spend that time, pick up the phone, ask the question, send an email to a community partner, if I have that relationship," McGraw says.
For years, libraries have been a place people turn to for information to help them solve problems. But the challenges patrons are dealing with are increasingly beyond the scope of what most librarians are trained to handle — and that's where social workers can fill in the gaps.
Providing public health services in public libraries isn't new. Many libraries are stocking the overdose antidote Narcan and training staff on how to administer it. Some libraries play host to vaccination clinics, and others have assisted in health insurance enrollment.
Indianapolis Public Library interim CEO John Helling says people trust libraries. "We're a safe place, we're a clean place, where we try to be a helpful place," Helling says. "And so we do find patrons experiencing just a wide variety of needs that just end up in our building, because we're the only place where they can go."
A growing need
Beth Whaler, director of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, works with public libraries across the country to understand their needs and suggests ways social workers may be able to help.
Whaler says she has consistently found libraries to be central to their communities. For that reason, library staff members are often more keenly aware of their community's emerging needs than other public entities may be.
"Sometimes they're the first ones to know what gaps [in social services] exist, because those are the issues that are coming in the door with the patron population there," Whaler says.
Her research has highlighted some of those gaps. Whaler conducted a survey of almost 5,000 people at three Midwest public libraries. Preliminary results, which have not yet been published, show that 10% of patrons reported needing help finding a job, 6% said they needed mental health assistance and 4% needed housing assistance.
These percentages might seem small, Whaler says, but many patrons have multiple needs — many of which require specialized training to adequately address. And, Whaler notes, any given library is faced with hundreds of patrons needing assistance.
"There are not enough shelter beds for people who are lacking safe housing; there aren't enough providers for mental health services [or] substance abuse services," Whaler says. "People have trouble accessing health insurance and medical care. There's not a livable wage in most communities."
The problems are made worse by a lack of funding and social services. In many communities, available services have not kept up with the need. Placing social workers in libraries makes a lot of sense, she says. "We are trained to assess and intervene with mental health, substance use, basic needs, poverty related needs, you know, a little bit of everything," Whaler says.
Easier said than done
Over the past decade, more libraries have been finding ways to partner with social workers, says Melanie Huggins, president of the Public Library Association, a branch of the national American Library Association. But there are many barriers.
The Indianapolis Public Library repurposed its operating budget to fund a social worker position after a librarian retired. But libraries often struggle to find funding for these positions and may lack the capacity for plugging social service gaps while also fulfilling their other duties.
Huggins says another roadblock involves challenging the idea that it's not the library's job to do this kind of work.
"I think library directors, even if they think it's a really great idea, they still have to balance it with all the other needs that they have in their community and within their library," Huggins says.
Indianapolis Public Library's Helling says it's the responsibility of libraries to meet the evolving needs of the community.
"And so whatever information these people walk in the door with, that's our responsibility to meet," Helling says. "Some people wonder if this is outside of scope for us. But I like to think that no, it's absolutely not."
Indianapolis social worker McGraw compares the library to a day shelter, with many homeless people spending time there but one with no support for really tough challenges.
One patron she recently helped was struggling to access federal stimulus money he was entitled to. The money was supposed to be distributed to all Americans under certain income thresholds, but the man who asked McGraw for help didn't have an ID, and although he had a job, he hadn't filed taxes — so he wasn't able to receive his stimulus check.
"He didn't have all his W-2s," McGraw says. "So I told him, 'Hey, go get this as your assignment. Let's just do this one thing, one step at a time. When you get that, then come back.'"
She says the next day, the patron did come back with what she'd asked for, and they tackled the next step.
McGraw says the number of people she helps varies day to day.
She has an office on the fourth floor of the Central Library in downtown Indianapolis. Her office hours are posted in various places in the building and she also makes rounds throughout the library to connect with patrons.
Her goal is to find a balance between seeking out patrons who might need assistance and allowing people to make the choice to come to her.
She says her open-door policy is how trust is built and relationships are formed — and both are important in social work.
"If my door's open, come on in," McGraw says. "And they do. Not even knocking, but they just come in. And I'd rather have it that way, because I want to make that connection."
McGraw says being a library social worker is her calling.
"Just helping people navigate and make those connections is really important to me," she says. "And when I go home, I am happy and content that I made a difference. It might be little differences, but it's the difference in some way in someone else's life."
This story comes from Side Effects Public Media — a public health news initiative based at WFYI. Follow Darian on Twitter: @helloimdarian.