Libraries: Everything to Everyone?

Or Jack of All Trades but Master of None?

Justin Hoenke recently voiced the argument that public librarians need to be “everything to every community member.” This argument unleashed a lot of push back from librarians. Stephanie Chase posted a tweet thread in response to the push back and it’s worth reading.

Her essential argument responds to librarians who, as she perceives, don’t want libraries to be different than what they were in our romanticized youths.

She states:


I agree with this 100%. There are librarians who resist change because they don’t want the library to evolve. That’s a real problem. She also links to a recent LitHub article, “Stop. The library isn’t your private, childhood memory palace.” I love this article and I agree with it 100%. I tweeted it out myself when it was first posted online.

I came to libraries because they’re so adaptable. Because I’m excited to serve my community in a time of tremendous change. Because I relish the challenge of figuring out how to respond to changing needs and demographics. In his book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, Wayne Wiegand points out public libraries have always adapted to changing needs and circumstances. There’s always been resistance to change, both internal and external. This is all to be expected.

Libraries should never be static entities—we need to be adaptable. The core of what we do is timeless—access, information, self-directed learning, self-directed entertainment—but of course our communities’ needs will change, and even the timeless needs will manifest differently, and technology will continue to alter how we access and consume information, sometimes in radical ways. This is good and healthy and exciting.

But I can’t completely agree that librarians need to be all things for all people. It’s not for the reasons Ms. Chase thinks. It starts with the following statement from her tweet thread:

Do I expect my staff to be social workers? No, but I do expect that they are interested in meeting the community’s actual needs.

I agree with this statement 100%. But that’s not the problem as I see it.

My experience over the past few years is that public librarians are being asked to function as social workers. We’re facing increasing pressure not just to connect patrons to social services but to provide those services ourselves, directly.

That’s a problem.

I’m not a qualified social worker and I can’t be an adequate substitute for one. I’m not an EMT or mental health professional and it’s dangerous to ask unqualified personnel to take on those responsibilities.

But we are being asked to take them on. The expectation is certainly mounting in that direction and that’s not OK. Libraries aren’t always the right solution for every community need. There are problems we can’t solve. There are problems we shouldn’t be the ones to solve.

This is the main source of push back I’ve seen from librarians regarding Mr. Hoenke’s argument. It’s not primarily ornery folk set in their ways and resisting change—it’s librarians who feel they’re being pushed to become social workers.

We’re not social workers. We’re librarians. That distinction matters. It’s entirely reasonable for us to be concerned over how the lines are being blurred.

I’ve spent my entire life watching social services in the U.S. get defunded, dismantled, largely eliminated. More and more I see communities turning to libraries to fill these needs, rather than reinvesting and doing the real work to rebuild our social services. Community governments, in particular, like this option as it’s a whole lot cheaper than actually revitalizing social services.

This can’t be the best solution for our communities. No matter how hard libraries try to meet these needs (and we try our hardest because someone has to) we can’t replace actual social services provided by qualified personnel. As Julie Jurgens points out:

Communities deserve mental health clinics, health care facilities, homeless shelters, access to social workers. They deserve this and libraries have a role to play—mostly in providing information.

Ms. Chase cites Eric Klinenberg’s book, Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life, and his argument that public libraries are a cornerstone of our social infrastructure. I agree with this 100% and I’ve told everyone who will listen that this book is one of the most important works written in the last decade.

But a healthy social infrastructure must be more than just libraries. It needs to be a network of varied nodes of connection, different modes of service, different kinds and contexts of social spaces. Mr. Klinenberg’s argument is that our society has spent the past several decades neglecting and eliminating our social infrastructure and now we’re paying the price for it.

Our communities need and deserve a full and robust social infrastructure and that requires a lot more than just libraries. Libraries can’t solve the lack of social infrastructure by ourselves. But my experience tells me we’re being pushed to take on a much larger share of this burden than we should. We’re being pressured to do more to make up for the fact that other social infrastructure elements are insufficient or aren’t there at all.

That can’t work. It’s not what our communities need. We need more than just libraries—we need a full, robust, and varied social infrastructure.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen more and more of this kind of responsibility dumped in the laps of libraries because our community governments are unwilling to make investments and do the real work of rebuilding and revitalizing our social infrastructure and services. Libraries are better than nothing but we can’t be the whole solution.

I’m afraid the more we embrace our role as a stop-gap band-aid solution—the more we accept getting dumped in our laps, the harder we try to be everything for everyone—we tacitly reinforce the belief of our governing bodies that this is the right way to go. It’s not. Our communities need more.

I worry we’re setting ourselves up to be jacks of all trades but masters of none. That’s not an acceptable service model when it comes to essential social services.

I also worry about the workload on staff. No one can do everything but we keep adding more trainings, more skill sets, more expectations—we’re going to hit a point where we can’t reasonably expect staff to take on any more. Burnout is already a significant problem (especially in urban public libraries) and the expectation of being everything for everyone sounds like a recipe for staff overload. We need some reasonable limits.

I’m all for change and evolution and serving the needs of my community. I’m committed to “meeting the community’s actual needs.” That’s why I’m a librarian.

Healthy communities grow and develop and the things people need from their library will change. I agree with Mr. Hoenke and Ms. Chase so long as we’re not expected to be social workers. But from what I’ve seen, librarians are being asked to function as social workers and that’s not the best way to serve our communities’ need.

The solution for our lack of sufficient social services and infrastructure in our communities isn’t to dump everything in the laps of librarians. We need to reinvest and rebuild our social services and infrastructure. This is the actual community need, as I see it.

People don’t always need their library to be everything for them. They need social infrastructure and social services.

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