My role sits within the Community Impact Unit and the wider Connected Communities Department. Connected Communities oversee the integrated delivery of services from Council’s community centres, libraries, community hubs and arts facilities. The key outcomes of this role are:
- Communities experiencing complex needs belong and participate in our libraries, arts facilities, and community centres
- Staff are capable, confident, and safe when working with communities experiencing complex needs. These outcomes point to the need to be intentional when balancing the needs of staff and the needs of communities experiencing complex needs.
KEY CHALLENGES OUR SPACES ARE FACING
In an age of ever-increasing unaffordable housing, increasing privatisation and control of urban space, along with public services moving online or closing altogether, people with complex needs are increasingly forced to live out their private lives in these public spaces like libraries. As a result, we are seeing the role of public libraries changing. Today, public libraries are picking up the slack where other centres are not responding, and it can create some real challenges for staff and the communities we work with. Several scholars have written about these intersecting issues. Some of which include:
- Staff becoming ‘first responders’ wanting to help, but not always knowing how to
- This rhetoric of “I am a librarian, not a social worker.”
- ‘Vocational awe’, ‘romanticisation’ and ‘fetishization’ of care
- Lack of appropriate resources, inadequate training and awareness of social issues leads to punitive/inconsistent service responses, risking further harm to staff and retraumatising people who are already marginalised
- Increase in incident reports, trespass-related incidents and police attendance. Incident management, it swallows up a lot of resources. If we’re not careful, organisations can start to reflect the crisis that some of our patrons may be experiencing, and it creates this constant ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mode.
- 'Dominant narrative of ‘safety’ and ‘security’ – “Incidents feels like all we do”.
While there is no doubt that significant incidents occur in libraries, we also need to be careful about how we frame incidents and what we mean by them, as this can skew data and perceptions of safety. In addition, if we frame behaviour only through a security and safety lens, then this will likely lead to more safety and security outcomes, and more spending on these. Like increased surveillance and the hiring of guards, rather than being able to address the associated needs that may be driving the behaviour. Some scholars have also talked about the surveillance drift with the increasing tracking of patrons and them being labelled “problem patrons”. At the same time, regular exposure to incidents, along with a lack of protective organisational systems can lead to vicarious trauma and burnout. In short, these factors are challenging and complex for everyone.
HOW WE ARE RESPONDING
This role has a regional focus, so to increase impact, we are prototyping and testing solutions at one site and as we work, we are adapting and scaling practice across the region. At the same time, we are learning from the work that’s being carried out at other sites and internationally too. Central Hub which includes the Central City Library, the Ellen Melville Centre, and the Albert Cottage was chosen as a test site due to experiencing the highest rate of security-related incidents and trespass notices, along with an acute culmination of the challenges mentioned earlier. Initially, we were tasked with reviewing the trespass process. But we knew that if we only looked at trespass, then we would only find security tools. Instead, we created the Central Hub ‘Safe Spaces Pilot Project’. This project aims to take a holistic approach to address behaviour that holds the inequities our communities experience in view, while also balancing the health, safety, and wellbeing of staff. This project is a collaborative and joined-up effort involving the Central Hub manager, the Central Hub team leaders, and Central Hub staff, along with our partners. We are looking inward, across, and outward to strengthen existing partnerships and build new ones.
INITIATIVES WE ARE PROTOTYPING AT CENTRAL HUB
The initiatives we are piloting as part of Central Hub Safe Spaces Pilot Project include developing a practice toolkit, piloting training, creating opportunities for people with lived experience such as a recent art exhibition and panel discussions, developing critically reflective practice through peer supervision, engaging tertiary student placements from the school of social work and the school of public health, and we are also planning to establish a library support worker pilot. I will briefly outline one of these examples, the Peer Supervision Program.
PEER SUPERVISION PILOT PROGRAMME
One of the initiatives we have been piloting at Central Hub is peer supervision. Indeed, library staff are not ‘social workers’ or ‘mental health professionals’, yet library staff are working with some of our most marginalised communities daily and they need tools to cope. In my research and in my previous role at the City of Melbourne, I’ve found that implementing avenues for critically reflective practice through processes like peer supervision can help staff to navigate some of the complex challenges they are facing.
The purpose of peer supervision is to provide a space for education, support, and accountability. It encourages peer-to-peer learning through drawing on expertise that is already in the room and on the other hand, helps to identify training needs and gaps in knowledge. It provides an avenue for peer support as it systematises organisational care and allows staff to share and listen to the daily realities of working in the library. It also increases accountability by providing a space to map available policies, processes, and resources and reviewing whether these are followed/not followed. If they are not followed or used, why not? Is it because no one knows about them? Are they no longer practical? What improvements could we suggest or make? Overall, it creates a structured environment for critical reflection.
All staff have attended at least one session, with 81 staff attending 14 sessions. We have also developed peer supervision guidelines to support the program to be implemented, adapted, and scaled. The best outcome of all is that staff have reported embedding what they’ve learned in their daily practice.
Through library social work collaborations, we can test and try things out. Social work roles in public libraries help us to probe what constitutes ‘place’ and reveal how social issues can be dealt with beyond welfare institutions and in public spaces like libraries. This helps us to resist becoming fixated on the pathology of individuals and problematising that structural issues like poverty and homelessness are caused totally by an individual's own doing. I believe that public libraries are well-placed to share stories of the inequities that their communities are experiencing. We need to share these stories to advocate for more structural and systemic reforms so we can work toward rearranging our systems around restoration, well-being, and healing.