“I just got out of jail and the library is where I’m going to figure out the rest of my life.”

One of the many virtues of public libraries is their accessibility. A library is one of few spaces that are truly open to anyone and everyone. That, coupled with the wealth of knowledge and resources that libraries offer means lots of people who are facing challenges in their lives seek refuge and support at the library. In our library community engagement, patrons express a deep appreciation for the library’s sense of comfort and safety.
We’ve gone through our community engagement outputs and pulled some of the ideas that patrons and library staff have for libraries going a step further in supporting their patrons. This is part of a series we’re running from now until the end of the year where we share some of the popular themes and ideas that have arisen from our library community engagement work.

Spaces for kids and Youth to grow and play

Growing up can be challenging—it’s awkward, anxiety-ridden, and kids and youth often struggle to find a strong sense of belonging. In this age of internet and video games, it can be a challenge for parents to get their kids out of the house and into the community. For libraries, creating a space with toys and games for kids of all ages to play is a great way to engage kids without having to provide more scheduled programming and use many more human resources. For parents who aren’t well connected in the community with other parents or who perhaps don’t have the means to provide their kids with toys and games themselves, a play area at the library is a welcome, dependable space for their kids to meet other kids, learn from each other, and be active.
For youth, the library provides a welcoming place for young people and teens who may not be welcomed in other spaces. It also helps expose youth to opportunities they may not otherwise have access to. The library can be a very empowering space for youth, for them to try new things, learn, and participate actively in their communities. Having a designated space for youth tells them “you’re welcome here, we want you here.”
Find an area of the library where it makes sense to set up a play area for kids and another for a space for youth to hang out. Pull a few chairs together, and go to your local second-hand store to purchase a few puzzles, toys, and games for low-cost. Test it out for a few weeks, then iterate! As you observe kids and youth using or not using their designated spaces, talk to them. Ask them about their needs, what they like about the space and what ideas they might have to improve it.
“If the Central Library had [a kid’s area with lots of toys and activities for kids of all ages like they have at Halifax Central], we would attend all the time. There’s nothing else like that in the downtown area.”

“There aren’t many places to go in the community, for our youth. The YMCA, community centres. But you still need shoes, shorts, a shirt. You require the social confidence to go. And it’s not for hanging out. You go there, you do an activity, you leave. The library, it’s safe, dry, climate controlled. There are computers, areas for hanging out.”

Multilingual Services and Materials

Libraries often want to know how they can promote diversity, be more inclusive of a plurality of cultures, and be a welcoming space for their entire community. As Canada welcomed 25,000 refugees this past year, community resources to help newcomers adapt, meet basic needs, and find a sense of belonging have been in high demand. Again, libraries are crucial to that endeavour, and language continues to be a simple but significant barrier. Read our CEO’s thoughts on library’s roles in fostering belonging in libraries here. 

If you don’t already know, find out which languages are most frequently spoken in your community, and add signs, information about community resources, and perhaps even a small section of books in those languages. Inviting speakers of those frequently-spoken languages to help with the translation could be a great opportunity to foster a sense of belonging, and, if you have the resources, paying them for their contributions would demonstrate their value to the community. 

“It’s great that multi-lingual  books and CDs are available—maybe the library could connect non-English speakers with services in other languages?”

Financial planning support

This one comes up a lot, actually. We don’t learn financial planning in school, and if you don’t have someone around you who is knowledgeable and willing to help you out, you’re left to your own devices. Thunder Bay Public Library has offered financial planning seminars in the past, which are great because you can get information to more people. Offering one-on-one help goes the extra mile by helping people with more complex financial scenarios, for example refugees and new immigrants, or people living in poverty.
Try hosting individuals from community services for financial planning support at the library one day this month. If you have a university or college in your community, consider inviting students from an accounting program to volunteer their help and gain experience.

Resources for jobseekers and Entrepreneurs

Whether it’s a youth looking for their first job, a refugee or newcomer seeking the best fit for their skills, or someone looking to make a career change, providing resources about finding a job or ways of supporting oneself is invaluable. You don’t have to have all the resources yourself, you can also act as a hub where you help get the word out about other helpful resources and services in your community. Patrons are also looking for resources to assist in their entrepreneurial pursuits—often these resources already exist in the community, and through partnerships libraries can connect patrons to those resources.
Consider providing resume-writing workshops, training or support for job interviews. Host a panel on a topic like freelance work, starting your own business, and unexpected career paths, or host a meetup for entrepreneurs or freelance artists to come together and learn from each other.
“Job centres are needed—more resources and opportunities for people out of work.”

A social worker, community resource worker, or public health nurse

It can be difficult to find access to a social worker in our healthcare system, so why not offer someone trained to provide that support at the library? As libraries become community hubs for all kinds of activities and services, having someone on staff trained to provide social support is starting to just make sense. They can provide counselling services, connect individuals to other community supports like food hamper programs, provide mental health and addictions support, emergency shelters and housing support, and the list goes on. The Winnipeg Public Library, the Edmonton Public Library, Brantford Public Library, and the Hamilton Library, for example, all have some form of social worker, youth worker, or public health nurse on staff. As you consider this, it’s also consider that sometimes the library can be a loney place for a social worker—it’s different than working for a more traditional social-work focused organization where they have other social workers to talk to. Making sure they have ties to a professional network of sorts is important.
We know that libraries don’t have unlimited resources, so hiring a full-time staff member might be off the table for now. We’ve interviewed a community agencies who have suggested the library could call them and ask for an outreach worker if the library was unable to provide service to someone themselves. If a library can’t afford a social worker, it’s definitely worth asking for those kinds of partnerships.
Otherwise, perhaps consider hiring an on-call social worker or part-time youth worker to try it out. Find out where their services are needed most, and whether or not it makes sense in your space, and then iterate.
“Rarely do I hear people say that they aren’t welcome at the library. Staff are friendly, accommodating, nice. But it would be cool to see, if the library was having an issue with a [community agency] youth, that they would call. Together we could work with that young person and find ways for them to engage. It’s hard because folks don’t know who’s staying at [the community agency], but even if that person isn’t staying, we have outreach counsellors. If they’re free, they could come. As opposed to police, or another more punitive approach.”

Some of these feel like a huge investment to implement, but they don’t have to be. We’ve tried to include some low-investment suggestions to begin these ideas, learn from them, and iterate based on your own community needs before you make the big investment.
What do you like about these ideas? Do you have concerns or ways to build on these ideas? Tell us about the things your library has done to support their patrons in the comment section below!