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Last Modified: March 4, 2024
Figure walking past a bus stop during a blizzard. The text "Beyond the Stacks with Jessie Bach" is underneath image.
Are Public Libraries the New Social Safety Net?

by Jessie Bach

In early January 2024, Alberta was plunged into a record-breaking deep freeze. My car wouldn’t start, and the furnace in my 1930s bungalow was working overtime to keep the temperature at a chilly 17 degrees. It was a challenging week. For many vulnerable and unhoused Albertans, it wasn’t just challenging—it was life-threatening.

In Airdrie, there was no 24-hour shelter available for people to retreat to when the winter weather became dangerously cold. The folks at the public library there recognized this, and committed to keeping their doors open day and night to provide a warming centre for the duration of the cold snap. Libraries in Spruce Grove, Fort Saskatchewan, and Chestermere, among others, also offered their facilities as warming centres during open hours—welcoming people in to read, rest, and stay warm as long as they needed. Some libraries even collected winter clothing like gloves, coats, hats, and blankets to distribute to those in need.

This is just one example of ways that Alberta’s public libraries have stepped in to fill holes in the social safety net.

Previously, I’ve written about the Little Free Pantries that provide access to food staples and other household necessities in many Alberta libraries, including Banff, Grande Prairie, and Sylvan Lake. These food pantries are often more easily accessible than food banks, especially in rural locations, and serve the dual purpose of raising awareness of food insecurity with the general public by being located in the library space.

It doesn’t stop there—libraries across the province are training their staff to administer naloxone, perform mental health first aid, and to respond safely, and with compassion, to their unhoused patrons. They partner with community organizations to provide sexual health supplies, personal hygiene products, and safe drug-testing kits, and they host talks and presentations aimed at connecting people with local support organizations and programs. They loan computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and other technology to help those on the wrong side of the “digital divide” access the internet to complete schoolwork or search for employment. With the proliferation of “Libraries of Things,” patrons can even borrow all sorts of necessary health equipment like blood pressure monitors, crutches, or a wheelchair.

In Alberta’s larger centres, libraries have even hired staff and have created partnerships to provide professional social services for their patrons. At the Medicine Hat Public Library, the Social Worker in the Library Program employs several social workers to provide the community with support and information. Patrons can book one-on-one time with a social worker for help navigating government programs and local community resources, as well as referrals for housing, community programs, mental health supports, and more.

Edmonton Public Library (EPL), employs a team of professional social workers with specialized training to respond to the needs of at-risk patrons. Since 2011, their job has been to engage with library patrons one-on-one to help identify their immediate needs and to connect them with resources and community services. Also on staff at EPL is an in-house nurse, whose role it is to respond to mental health crises and opioid poisonings that occur in and around the library.

These are all examples of how library services have expanded from lending books and offering quiet places to read and study, to providing essential items and services to a growing population of people in need. How did we get here?

The Canadian Urban Institute and Canadian Urban Libraries Council recently published a report called Overdue: The Case for Canada’s Public Libraries. While libraries have been providing social supports in various ways for decades, this report identifies the COVID-19 pandemic as the “pivot” point for Canada’s libraries, stating that “during the COVID-19 pandemic, the one civic institution that emerged as a reliable, safe and essential service, was the public library.”

In early 2020, libraries quickly adapted to provide the services that were needed most. While COVID forced the closure of library facilities, their staff invented ways to continue to deliver library materials to their patrons through contactless home delivery and curbside holds pick-up stations. This didn’t end with books—libraries became distribution hubs for personal protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizer. Activity kits were created and loaned to assist people struggling with homeschooling and social isolation. While other service providers and public facilities closed their doors and suspended operations, libraries purchased and distributed menstrual products and other hygiene items, and some even supplied portable toilets and hand wash stations.

The Overdue report states that “pressure mounted, and continues to exist, for libraries to provide local services in the absence of adequate social infrastructure and comprehensive mental health care,” and exerts that libraries in Canada are increasingly picking up the slack for governments that are not fulfilling their obligations to their citizens. Libraries took on myriad new initiatives, and despite the end of the crisis stage of the pandemic, few things, if any, have been removed from their plates. How will libraries keep this up?

The solution offered in the report to this conundrum is no surprise—increased funding for libraries. Across the country, and here in Alberta, library leaders and board members are working hard at telling the story of how libraries are supporting their communities and making the case for governments to spend more money on libraries.

Despite the challenges, it makes sense that libraries are doing this work. Libraries are uniquely connected to the communities that they serve. Their established methods of cost-sharing, internal delivery networks, and established community partnerships all serve this purpose well. As community hubs, they are accessible to all and free to use. The library is a safe, familiar, and welcoming space, and often becomes the first place people go to seek assistance. Libraries are good at pivoting and evolving to ensure they are providing the things their communities need the most.

To quote Overdue, the COVID-19 pandemic followed by the current cost-of-living crisis has cemented the “importance of community members having reliable, safe and accessible places close to home, to gather information and find support.” With the right support from all levels of government, libraries can continue to be this place.


About the Author:

Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.

Photo of Jessie Bach, author of this article

Jessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta and is a lifelong library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Communications & Engagement Manager at Marigold Library System. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, three cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym.

Feature image credit: Josh Hild through Pexels.