How do you foster inclusiveness in a public space? How do you welcome the fullness of human experience where everyone is welcome, but perhaps not everyone gets along? More specifically, in a space such as the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh where the goal is one of inclusion and equity, how do you have a conversation with a homeless man who needs to bathe before he can return? Or who is actively delusional? Or combative?
These are big questions, and ones our friends at CLP have been navigating for quite some time. And these questions are not solely local to our city. They exist all over the country. The societal issue of providing services for people who are experiencing poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and/or mental illness - grappled with by legislators and service providers alike - affects urban libraries everywhere. Because they are open, often easily accessible, and free they tend to serve a cross-section of the population.
Perhaps because of this, Leah Esquerra, an LMFT at the San Francisco Public Library observed, “my clients have told me that they consider the library a sanctuary, and many of them utilize and truly enjoy the library resources.” Leah was hired as part of a partnership between the SFPL and the San Francisco Department of Health/San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team.
A public library being experienced as a sanctuary is a beautiful reality, and we have heard a similar sentiment here in Pittsburgh as well. This, however, does raise the possibility of a paradox: how to be inclusive of all while setting standards that could potential exclude some.
CLP’s embrace of social inclusion – the process of improving the opportunity, ability, and dignity of those disadvantaged or marginalized – is a big part of their approach to crossing the seeming contradiction. That their librarians are beautiful, empathic people also goes a long way to fostering an atmosphere of comfort and care.
Wait, did that just read “comfort and care” and we’re talking about a public library? You bet.
For a number of years now librarians have been working as lay social workers, often with some of the most marginalized in our communities. They’re patient. They’re kind. They hold an unconditional regard for their patrons. And if they don’t know the answer, they’ll put in the time to figure one out.
This description sounds a lot like what you might read about Connections4Health, or at least what the program strives to be. (Maybe it is also why we have found such a natural community partner with CLP?) Over the summer we are excited to begin researching with CLP programs that address the needs of marginalized populations which other urban libraries have instituted. While we don’t yet know where this research will lead or what may come of it, simply having another opportunity to play some small role that works towards narrowing disparities is exciting.
If you would like to read a little more about what another public library is doing when it comes to social services and addressing social determinants, check out this article on the San Francisco Public Library.