WPL Responds to Patron-Driven Needs

In the fall, MLS held a series of Social Services Forums to bring members together to talk about issues facing our communities and to explore potential partnerships.  At our first forum, Christina Connolly from the Worcester Public Library (WPL) shared the WPL’s experience with responding to the social services needs of their patrons.  Thank you to Christina for her interview, the first in a series featuring library/social service partnerships.

Christina Connolly

Christina Connolly

What moved you to connect your patrons with community services?

Christina Connolly: As in all public libraries across the country, there is a population of “regulars” that visit the Main Library in downtown Worcester; people who come in nearly every day to spend time in a spacious, peaceful, and safe environment staffed with friendly faces. Sometimes these patrons read, sometimes they watch movies on the computer, sometimes they quietly socialize with their peers, and sometimes they do nothing but pass through and the librarian who greets them with a smile is the one person to acknowledge them that day.

Many of our regulars do not have permanent homes and have been couch surfing or shelter hopping for years, but somehow, they survive.  As a certified resume writer, I’ve enjoyed the unique opportunity to regularly sit down with many of these patrons in a one-on-one capacity and discuss their pasts, presents and futures while strategizing job searches and building resumes.  Listening to their histories and plans against the context of their day-to-day living is what inspired me to learn more about available community resources and services to aid them in gaining basic things like sustainable housing and job stability. After all, there’s nothing sweeter than a success story!

Please tell us about the WPL’s Social Services Workgroup.

The Public Services reference team at WPL consistently works to provide for the needs of the people in our community, reaching beyond traditional library services to support a diverse patron base. Therefore, it only made sense to create a team of librarians whose goal was to become familiar with social service resources in the area, and in turn, educate the rest of the staff. We began as a group of four and visited over a dozen local agencies, including but not limited to, Workforce Central, City of Worcester’s Department of Health and Human Services, Salvation Army, Genesis Club, and Community HealthLink’s Homeless Advocacy Outreach Program.

We have participated in several local events, such as Worcester Cares About Recovery Day and Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance’s annual meeting. We are currently participating in an National Library of Medicine grant with AIDS Project Worcester and the UMass Medical Library to augment area print and e-resources for those affected by HIV/AIDS. Through efforts like these, we have created working partnerships with outside agencies that have allowed us to make smarter referrals and also to promote our own services–a win-win.

Worcester Public Library

What resources, services, or programs does the WPL offer to help patrons in need?

Adding services and connecting patrons to external community resources has been a major focus in recent years. First and foremost, as a free and open public space, the library has become an information hub for the homeless and other underserved groups, connecting them to food pantries, shelter, medical care, and other support services. We offer take-away brochures listing resources, as well as an online guide that directs users to resources in the following topics: Addiction and Recovery, Clothing, Domestic/Sexual Violence Support, Emergency Shelters, Employment and Career Development, Food Pantries, Housing Resources, Legal Services, Medical and Mental Health Services, Reintegration Programs, and Veterans’ Assistance.

On a monthly basis, EPOCA (Ex-Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement) holds CORI sealing classes, and an attorney from Community Legal Aid’s CORI and Re-Entry Project holds a monthly drop-in session.  Approximately half of WPL’s workforce is trained in administering the opioid-reversal drug Narcan, as was highlighted just last week http://www.telegram.com/news/20171230/narcan-plays-increasing-role-in-fighting-opioid-in-worcester.  At WPL, it is the combination of a supportive administration and a concerned frontline that has resulted in a very engaged staff, always willing to learn more about pertinent resources and share that knowledge with patrons in need.

What other reflections would you like to share?

Our primary goal as librarians has always been to provide relevant information to improve people’s lives; as a profession, we pride ourselves on being responsive to patron-driven needs. Although many people outside the library field may be shocked that librarians are dealing so closely with issues such as homelessness and drug addiction, becoming more educated and offering social services resources is really no different from what we have always done. We are simply striving to fill an information need as perceived from behind the service desk and, of course, among the patrons.

Interview with Christina Connolly, Public Services Supervisor Programming, Worcester Public Library

Interviewed by Michelle Eberle, MLS Consultant


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Building Public Library/Social Work Partnerships: Three Success Stories

Date:  Thursday, January 18, 2018
Time:  2 – 3 PM
Webinar – Register now to attend    

Join us for this unique opportunity to learn about three public library/social work partnerships. Anna Fahey-Flynn will discuss the Boston Public Library’s experience with hiring a social worker from the Pine Street Inn.  Glenn Ferdman and Cathy Piantigini will share how the Somerville Public Library connected with the Cambridge Health Alliance to hire a Health Services Coordinator.   Lisa Downing from the Forbes Library in Northampton will fill you in on her library’s successful partnership with a homeless outreach social worker.  If your library is exploring partnering with a social worker or if you just want to learn more about this trend, this webinar is for you!

After this webinar, you will be able to:

  • Describe community benefits of public library/social work partnerships
  • Share three library/social work success stories with your colleagues
  • Use the stories to advocate for hiring a social worker for your library or partnering with a social worker from a local organization


  • Anna Fahey-Flynn, Central Library Manager, Boston Public Library
  • Glenn Ferdman, Director, Somerville Public Library
  • Cathy Piantigini, Deputy Director of Libraries, Somerville Public Library
  • Afsaneh Moradi, MD, Health Services Coordinator, Somerville Public Library
  • Lisa Downing, Director, Forbes Library

We hope you can attend!

Hosted by Michelle Eberle, MLS Consultant


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Public Library/Social Services Forums Update

In October and November, the Massachusetts Library System hosted four Public Library/Social Service Forums.  The idea for the forums was initially generated by my interest to explore whether our members might be interested in hosting social work field placements at public libraries.  To explore this idea, in August of 2017, we conducted a survey of public library directors and discovered that our membership is very interested to partner with social workers.

Social Service Forum

Public library directors were primarily interested to have a social worker onsite to:

  • Provide social services referrals
  • Lead staff development on topics like poverty, diversity, and social justice
  • Coordinate community awareness events on topics such as homelessness, diversity, and suicide prevention
  • Offer support for immigrants and citizenship.

The results of the survey revealed that this project should take a much broader scope and explore ways to foster not just social work partnerships, but social services partnerships.

What happened at the forums?  The library/social services forums included a brief update of the results of the survey followed by plenty of time for members to discuss issues facing their library’s community, to share how they are responding, and identify ways to co-create solutions.  Our members expressed concern about serving patrons who are experiencing homelessness, substance use disorders, and mental illness.  Attendees also shared about wanting to better serve immigrants with literacy and citizenship services.  Some members were concerned about hosting a social work field placement and were more interested in connecting with local agencies to get an experienced social worker on-site part-time.  At the end of the forums, we had an ideation activity to brainstorm and co-create creative and innovative library/social services partnerships.

Would you like to see all the ideas generated by the forums as well as the slides from the presentation?  Check out our Social Services Forums Resource Guide.

So, what’s next?  Stay tuned for:

Please feel free to reach out to me at michelle@masslibsystem.org to learn more about the forums and upcoming plans to further support public library/social services partnerships in Massachusetts.

-Michelle Eberle, Consultant

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The Springfield City Library Turning Outward

Have you thought about using the Turning Outward to Your Community step-by-step guide to better understand and connect with your library’s community?  In this month’s MLS Community Engagement Blog interview, Jean Canosa Albano, Assistant Director for Public Services at the Springfield City Library, shares her experience and insights from participating in the Libraries Transforming Communities initiative.

How did your library “turn outward to your community” using the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation’s process?

Jean Canosa Albano

Jean Canosa Albano

Jean Canosa Albano:  We are part of the Libraries Transforming Communities cohort, having received a grant from the American Library Association to learn about the Harwood Institute’s philosophy and methods of community engagement. My team of five staff members traveled to Denver, Chicago, and San Francisco for intensive training, and we learned about reframing the community narrative away from the negative (“we’ve tried that before,” “in the old days it worked better like this,” and “nothing ever works”) to a more positive, aspirational narrative (“we should have more opportunities to be outside in the community,” “a better mentorship network will help our community,” and “more discussion and conversation will lead to better coordination between neighbors and community agencies”). We learned how to turn outward, and base our policy and programmatic decisions on what we know about the community, rather than sitting around a board room, drawing on statistics, census data, and what other libraries are doing.

What did you learn about your community through the process?

Bill Walton and HCS HS Kids at Basketball Monument

Bill Walton at the Basketball Monument

Imagine a beloved park or a community center that you’ve visited for years or that symbolizes neighborhood pride. Suddenly, you find that park padlocked, or the community center boarded up. What would that feel like? For our neighborhood residents, that spot was a small park adjacent to the Mason Square Branch Library that commemorates the location of the first game of basketball.  When it first opened, it was a source of pride for neighborhood residents. But for over a year, its lighted glass panels had been boarded up. Through a series of Community Conversations, we heard about how unhappy people were with the delay in repair, and their belief that the panels were boarded up because of a fear of vandalism, not actual vandalism. This lack of trust between residents and institutions came across in many other ways, too, including participants telling us how hard it can be to mail a letter when the corner mailboxes have been removed from their streets. We carried this information forward, and other neighbors took action as well, and soon, the panels were uncovered, and the community took pride in the restoration of this space that connects the sport’s past to today. When basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton recently visited Springfield, he came to the Mason Square Branch for a read-aloud, then toured the basketball park with dozens of Head Start students. It was a great day!

 How is your library staff using what you learned?

16 Acres Mural with City Councilor Marcus Williams

16 Acres Mural with City Councilor Marcus Williams

 We have used the Innovation Space technique to think about what we have been learning. It’s a way to pause and reflect and make sure that what we are doing matches what we are hearing from the community. For example, we used the practice to look at our Hi!Tech computer classes, revising the format and focusing on outcomes. Our monthly reports now include a section headed What Are We Hearing from the Community? We are not simply looking for comments on the library schedule or collections. We want to know what our community members’ aspirations and challenges are. Once, a librarian happened to mention the difficulty patrons have expressed getting jobs due to their CORI status. This is what we should be listening for. It lets us know that when a community group wants to hold a session on seeking employment post-incarceration, or if we have an opportunity to offer a program on closing a criminal record after paying your dues, that those are programs that will be of interest to members of our community. Continue reading

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