When Marie Mathieu talks about her new job as the Cambridge Public Library’s first social worker, people tend to make the same joke: What, is she going to be helping people check out books?
But rather than steering patrons to new literary arrivals, Mathieu’s job is about making connections with people in need.
On any given day, that includes referring people who are homeless to places in the area where they can get social services; guiding an immigrant family that needs help navigating government paperwork (Mathieu speaks English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole); or listening to a person dealing with substance use disorders and connecting them with treatment.
“Once I explain it to folks, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, that makes so much sense. How is this not a bigger thing?’ ” Mathieu said.
In the last decade, a smattering of libraries across the country have begun collaborating with social workers to support many of the patrons who take shelter in the public buildings each day. There’s often an overlap in their missions of serving people, regardless of their resources. The San Francisco Public Library hired its first social worker in 2009. And as the opioid epidemic and growing inequities soared, people who needed help often ended up at the public library, seeing it as one of the few welcoming spaces accessible to them.
“Libraries are the epicenter of information. So my hope is to make the Cambridge Public Library kind of like a toolbox that houses all the tools that people have at their disposal,” Mathieu said. “That, I think, is kind of the beauty of my role — the role has a broad scope, so I have the opportunity to work with various populations, all of them being under-served.”
For most of her tenure, which began March 1, library doors were closed to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic. She spent her early weeks connecting with social services programs around Cambridge, forming relationships so she could eventually refer people to programs and institutions that might be able to help.
Mathieu, who grew up in the area and went to school in Cambridge, has been a social worker for about 15 years. She previously worked in the Cambridge District Court’s drug courts program, and said she hopes to take a preventative approach, intervening before people enter the criminal system.
She has been introducing herself to patrons at book clubs and library events, and talking to people who request meetings with her through the library’s website. Her clients don’t need to live in Cambridge or have a library card, she said.
“I hope that more and more library systems start creating these opportunities for folks,” Mathieu said. “I think the really cool part about it is that the bar for entry is very low. We try to not have any barriers into who is able to access my services.”
The idea of offering social services through a library comes from the viewpoint that libraries should be truly public spaces — available and welcoming to everyone, not limited by income or age or ability or status, said Catherine Piantigini, director of libraries for the Somerville Public Library.
“It sounds so simplistic, but really there’s nothing like it. There’s no third space in the community that’s anything like it,” Piantigini said.
The Boston Public Library has a partnership with the Pine Street Inn, in which social workers help steer patrons to services.
In the last decade, the number of libraries with social workers or connections to social services programs has grown — from about 10 in 2013 to more than 100 in 2019, said Sara Zettervall, a librarian by training and consultant and trainer of Whole Person Librarianship, a Minneapolis-based organization that educates library staff on social work tools.
Librarians and library staff, Zettervall said, “were seeing patrons coming into the library with challenging life needs that we as librarians are not trained to meet.”
She described it as an extension of librarians’ mission in connecting people with information and resources.
”This is an area where people might be uncomfortable asking for help, or they might not even know that there are resources they can ask for,” Zettervall said. “They just know the library as a place where they can go, that is safe and open to everyone.”
From 2017 to 2018, Somerville had a health services worker from the Cambridge Health Alliance working 20 hours a week, split among three library branches. The position, funded with state money, was meant to help people who were struggling — especially with mental health issues, homelessness, and substance use disorders.
But the pilot program turned out to be difficult to implement, Piantigini said. The libraries did not have many private spaces for one-on-one conversations, and approaching patrons to ask if they would be interested in talking could be hit-or-miss.
“Ideally I would be saying to you it was a huge success and we benefited a lot from it,” she said.
Still, the program was successful in introducing library staff to different social services agencies and ways in which they can help if a patron needs it.
“Ultimately, it didn’t feel like it was the right fit for us,” Piantigini said. “What worked for us really well was realizing that we had all these resources at our fingertips. And the health services coordination can be the person who goes between the community and social services agencies, but the library staff also can do that.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-929-2043.