The Community Connector: Referring Social Services at the Library

No matter where they're located, libraries help patrons navigate information about housing, employment, counseling, health, and other important human services. To support making these connections for their communities, libraries have been exploring new tools, programming, and staffing options.

For example, larger libraries, such as the San Francisco Public Library, have hired full-time social workers as part of their staff. The Santa Cruz Public Library, a smaller library, has a community information database.

In our April webinar, TechSoup for Libraries partnered with our friends at WebJunction to hear about how three libraries of varying sizes use social referral services, resources, and programs to support their communities. Our guest speakers were:

The wonderful thing about these programs is that they can easily be adopted by other libraries — both large and small.

Ashe County Wellness Circle

Ashe County Wellness LibGuide

The Ashe County Public Library teamed up with its local Health Alliance and Mental Health Round Table to come up with ways to promote mental health and wellness as well as reduce the stigma of seeking information for mental health help. Together, they came up with a plan to promote The Seven Dimensions of Wellness.

Suzanne Moore, who sits on the Mental Health Round Table, came up with the idea of a Wellness Circle book club. Every book, usually nonfiction, relates to one of the seven dimensions such as occupational, intellectual, or emotional wellness. They also created a LibGuide for content and resources around different wellness topics. They recruited some community volunteers to help them promote and curate the different topics.

One of my favorite things about the Wellness Circle is that the circle's leaders incorporate nature walks into their book discussions. The library is fortunate enough to have a trail nearby, so it's a great way to combine physical and mental wellness with the book discussions.

The library publicizes its programs through the county's government agencies, in radio ads, and with its local assisted-living homes.

Social Services Provider Network

International Falls Public Library

The International Falls Public Library serves a small, rural community of about 6,000 residents spread out in a fairly large county in Minnesota. The community is fairly low income, as well, according to Diane Adams. The idea for a social services provider network came about at a community health fair. Diane and the other exhibitors were talking casually and sharing information about the services they provide. "We should do this regularly!" said one of the exhibitors.

The network now meets every other month. The group has a simple goal: share what you're doing and what services you provide. Any organization is welcome to attend the meetings — from the 4H club to religious organizations.

Because the county is so spread out, these network meetings are vital for organizations to learn about each other's work. They created an email list of the participating organizations so that they can contact each other for potential partnerships.

"We are incredibly low-key," said Diane. Though she stressed how informal the meetings are, the network has been incredibly helpful for the library. If a patron comes in with a specific problem or question, library staff can point the person to a relevant organization or information source in the county.

Coffee and Conversations

Who doesn't love coffee? Dallas Public Library holds a bimonthly Coffee and Conversation event to help connect staff with customers who are homeless. The goals of the Coffee and Conversation events are straightforward:

  • Humanize those who are affected by homelessness
  • Reduce misunderstandings
  • Create a space for open dialogue
  • Connect on commonalities
  • Address library concerns
  • Have a good time!

Library staff has also seen a bridge built between the "housed" community and the "unhoused." Overall, it has been a successful program for opening up dialogue around homelessness issues.

Dallas Public Library coffee and conversation event photos

Jasmine Africawala recommends greeting your customers by introducing yourself and learning their names. She also said you should try and find your "influencers," the people who know a lot of other people in the community. She also said she identifies staff members who are "people people" and are good at starting conversations.

In order to keep the conversation flowing, Jasmine recommends assigning a topic for the conversation, such as favorite movies, meeting new staff, or why you love the library. She has also invited guest speakers from agencies or community organizations. Another idea is to have some sort of hands-on activity, such as holiday card-making.

The program is very low-cost because the library only spends money on coffee and creamer and occasionally gets donations from community businesses.

Referral Tools and Resources to Check Out

  • Caravan Studios' Range app helps kids find free summer meals.
  • Queens Library's Where in Queens connects homeless and low-income residents with resources. 
  • Link-SF provides a similar service for residents in San Francisco.
  • LocalFreeWeb helps San Francisco libraries refer patrons to other public-access computers.

Does your library have resources or programs around health, wellness, or social services? Share with us in the comments.