In a secluded corner with comfy chairs, houseplants, decorative lamps and a nice view of the Eau Claire River, Libby Richter awaits the next person who will seek her help at the city’s public library.
On the job for 1½ months, she’s already used her social work experience to help people apply for government programs, fill out housing applications and even assist a person get into rehab for substance abuse.
Word-of-mouth has gotten out that L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, 400 Eau Claire St., now has a person available 40 hours a week who is focused on addressing poverty, mental health and substance abuse issues.
“I’ve had a lot of walk-ins,” Richter said.
She’s the library’s first community resources specialist, one of two new positions the City Council created at the library through this year’s budget.
“She’s really connected with the people that use our library,” library director Pamela Westby said of Richter.
Navigating the paperwork and bureaucracy of getting services for mental health or addiction issues can be difficult, Westby said, and having someone who knows how to handle that is a positive addition that the library can offer the community.
“One part that’s been really neat is people know about the position and are coming specifically to the library to find their way through the different services,” she said.
People referred by the Sojourner House homeless shelter, Positive Avenues day center, the police department or other social services have found their way to Richter already.
Twice a week Richter uses the Friends of the Library Lounge — the secluded rear corner of the first floor — as her office. But if a patron wants more privacy, they’ll go upstairs to the cubicle office where she is for the rest of the week.
A typical day so far for Richter involves seeing one to two people who need her help and then researching how other libraries use social workers to provide services.
Richter brings social work and library experience to her new job.
“It’s always been a passion of mine to see how these worlds converge,” she said. “And the city did that for me.”
A 2014 graduate of UW-Eau Claire’s social work program, Richter has spent the past 2½ years at Eau Claire domestic abuse shelter Bolton Refuge House, as the organization’s family interaction advocate.
In addition to social work, she’s also got work experience in libraries. Richter worked at Menomonie’s public library when she was 16 and then during college she worked at McIntyre Library on the UW-Eau Claire campus.
Richter sees libraries as good settings for social workers because they’re welcoming, peaceful, free to all and have a wealth of information available.
“It’s always been a safe place for me and it’s like that for a lot of people,” she said.
For two years Westby has noticed how other libraries have been adding social workers to their offerings in some way.
“It’s been really interesting to see how developed it has become,” she said.
An assistant professor at UW-Eau Claire has become an expert in the phenomenon and is co-authoring a book that will be published later this summer.
Mary Nienow, assistant professor of social work, and librarian Sara Zettervall of Minneapolis wrote “Whole Person Librarianship: A Social Work Approach to Patron Services.” The two friends began studying the issue about seven years ago after a discussion about their respective jobs and people they serve.
“At the time when we started this, nobody was talking about it like they are now,” Nienow said.
San Francisco was the first city in the U.S. to hire a social worker for its public library. There are well over 30 library systems now that do the same, but many others that have social work interns or regularly bring in practitioners to provide services.
“It’s really caught on in the last few years,” Nienow said.
When asked why social workers are popping up in libraries of all places, Nienow said, “We always go where the people are.”
She added that people seeking help through a library wouldn’t face the same judgment they can experience when using a FoodShare card at a grocery store or when going into a building where people normally get government assistance.
“The library is not a stigmatized place in terms of getting services,” Nienow said. “It’s safe, it’s warm, it’s nonjudgmental.”
The other position created this year at the library is an early literacy and outreach librarian position, which will work with children between birth and 8 years old, but with a particular emphasis on 2 to 3 year olds.
“That’s a critical time when the brain is developing,” Westby said.
Intended to serve families with social, economic and educational disadvantages, the position is intended to foster literacy among at-risk youth.
Research has shown that children who are proficient at reading before third grade are less likely to need government assistance, be unemployed or go to jail, Westby said.
An employee has been hired in that position but won’t start on the job until May 28.
The process of funding two new library positions became a point of debate among some candidates during April’s City Council election. Several challengers railed that the jobs were added in the same November City Council meeting that also approved the 2019 city budget.
Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said she wanted to do something in the 2019 budget to address poverty and homelessness in Eau Claire. In her visits to other cities, she’d seen that some libraries had hired social workers to help residents with those issues in their lives.
“The library is a trusted resource in the community,” she said. “It makes sense.”
Emmanuelle asked Westby, who also had an interest in adding social work and outreach staff to the library, to make a presentation during an early November budget session. That meeting was intended as a time for council members to bring forth potential amendments to the proposed 2019 budget. However, the plan to pull together the funding for the new library positions didn’t come out until Nov. 26 — the day before the 2019 budget was approved.
The $179,800 budgeted for salary, benefits and other costs related to the two new jobs was pulled together from money that had initially been planned for a variety of contracted services.
The budget changes needed to hire the new library workers were passed in a slim 6-4 vote on Nov. 27.
Councilman Jeremy Gragert said he cast one of the opposing votes because the list of cuts needed to fund the new jobs came up too quickly, and he found some to be not palatable. (One of the cuts did prove unpopular earlier this year as Gragert had to lead an effort to find $20,000 in the budget to restore funding for portable restrooms at several city parks that don’t have permanent facilities.)
But he’s glad the new jobs have been filled and is excited to see the work they will be doing.
“I certainly support the positions,” Gragert said this week.
And though she hasn’t met Richter yet, Emmanuelle said she’s already heard of people who had “fallen through the cracks” go to the library and get resources that will help them improve their lives.
Richter already has ideas on how she’d like to teach life skills classes on cooking, bring social work interns to the library and host conversations for residents to discuss local issues.
“I hope to make the community more aware of the community members who are struggling with homelessness, mental health and substance abuse,” she said.