New Brunswick Public Library Services is looking to hire a bilingual social worker as part of a year-long pilot project.
Julia Stewart, the director of the Fredericton Public Library, says the social worker will help connect patrons to community resources and potentially offer services such as counselling, intervention and mediation.
"Public libraries are a great equalizer," Stewart said. "It's often a space where people gather from all walks of life and age groups with no expectation of spending money.
"This social worker would be embedded in the library system connecting folks visiting the library with services in the community."
The position will be based in Saint John, Moncton or Fredericton, but ideally some form of support will be offered to all 63 libraries throughout the province, Stewart said.
Stewart says the pilot project has been in the works since 2017, when significant community need was first identified. She said many people who use the library are dealing with complex life issues.
"We run the gamut here at the library," she said. "We have newcomers arriving in our cities who need access to resources, we have people experiencing homelessness, we have people with mental health issues, we have seniors looking for companionship, and we have parents looking for program support for their children."
Navigating these types of challenges are beyond the scope of what librarians are trained to handle, according to Stewart.
"[A librarian and social work] are two very different professions," she said. "This position would help bridge that gap and support the librarians who are currently working in public library spaces."
Stewart said the pandemic and its toll on the community's overall well-being makes the project even more timely.
Services to start in the fall
The New Brunswick Public Library Services is hoping to have the position secured by the fall with services to start shortly after.
She said the library will be working closely with the social worker to measure the success of the pilot project, and she personally hopes to see it become permanent.
"It's a pilot to help us flush out some ideas and get some great measures that will hopefully continue this project for years to come," she says.
Applauded by the social workers' group
Géraldine Poirier Baiani, the president of the New Brunswick Association of Social Workers, said libraries are an excellent hub for social services.
"Public libraries are visited every day by a vast number of people who are experiencing things like poverty, homelessness, mental health, substance abuse, social isolation, and unemployment," she said. "It seems to be an ideal place to have social workers."
The collaboration isn't uncommon, she said, and she knows of similar, successful programs south of the border, and in Alberta and Ontario.
"Libraries are barrier-free. Everyone can go there," she said. "You don't need to be a certain age, you don't need ID, you don't need money to buy anything. And it's a very welcoming place so people don't need to be intimidated."
Poirier Baiani expects the initiative will benefit library patrons but also staff members who might not feel confident helping patrons in difficult circumstances.
"We're quite hopeful they will find this is helpful," she said. "We're eager to see it expand across the province."
Applications for the position closed on July 14.