RACINE, Wis. — Libraries aren't just for books anymore; librarians have been called on to be more than just experts on the Dewey Decimal System. They have to do a lot more, taking on roles they didn't expect to when they took the job.

Darcy Mohr, Racine Public Library's head of adult and youth services, said that RPL's librarians "had been identifying needs in the community that they weren't really trained to answer and to help people with: things like poverty, homelessness, addiction, mental illness. These are things that we were never trained for, in library school, to help people with."

As libraries nationwide contend with patrons seeking refuge in the stacks because of poverty, drug addiction or mental illness, a growing number of institutions have social workers on staff.

According to the Whole Person Librarianship organization, an estimated 40-plus library systems nationwide are staffing full-time social workers. Dozens of other systems staff social workers part-time. These social workers are trained to help people experiencing a crisis, usually related to mental health issues, alcohol or drug abuse, and some medical emergencies.

These situations can overwhelm the Racine Public Library staff, which sometimes has a thousand visitors on a single weekday.

"Once in a while, we will have situations where someone will be in 'crisis mode' and the staff won't necessarily have the training to know how to respond," Mohr told The Journal Times of Racine. "As we meet monthly, they (the librarians) identify these things and say: 'How do we do this? How do we handle this?' And as I researched it, I realized that this was the direction libraries were going: Bringing social workers into the library."

Last month, the Racine Public Library added a part-time, temporary social worker to the staff. If the trial run shows that the social worker, Carol Pagan, makes a positive difference in how the library provides services to the public, Racine Public Library may be added to the list of libraries with a full-time social worker.

Other regional libraries that employ full-time social workers include St. Paul, Minnesota, the Addison and Evanston public libraries in suburban Chicago and at least two libraries in the City of Chicago itself.

She knows the ins and outs

Pagan, 58, is a remote master's student at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, and this internship is one of the final steps she has to complete before getting her degree in December. She will work 24 hours a week, primarily on evenings and weekends, until the end of the internship in February.

Despite only recently starting the internship, Pagan already has firsthand expertise in her field.

She moved here from Arizona in summer 2017, and has since worked with (and gotten help from) some of Racine's leading charitable organizations, including Racine Vocational Ministries, the HOPES Center, the Hospitality Center, Ascension Health and the Women's Resource Center.

Pagan said she is a survivor of domestic abuse and a recovering alcoholic. She says that her experiences will help her help others who may be experiencing crises similar to the ones she faced. She still lives at Bethany Apartments, which was founded by the Racine Dominicans and provides housing for women and children who survived domestic violence.

"I've had a rough life and I've overcome so much," Pagan said of her goals while working at the library. "I can understand and relate to where a lot of individuals in Racine ... are coming from. It's OK to need help and we can ask for help."

She won't provide long-term assistance or case management, but rather can intervene in crisis scenarios and can connect people who need help with the organizations who can help them.

Pagan continued: "Some people are afraid to even ask the questions, or don't know the questions to ask, to get the help that they need."

Doing more

At the Racine Public Library, Mohr said the whole reference staff took a course about bringing social work service into libraries called Whole Person Librarianship, a six-week training that gives librarians some of the core knowledge that social workers (like Pagan) have studied and practiced for years.

"It really just got to the point," Mohr said, "where the librarians said 'We need a better way to help people.' "

The decision to bring in a social worker didn't happen overnight: The library staff gradually realized how ill-equipped they were to deal with certain situations, particularly those related to homelessness and drug abuse — things of which Pagan has firsthand knowledge.

It's not just immediate crises that libraries have been called upon to do more than they were designed to do.

Last summer, the library made itself available to help people apply for housing vouchers.

This past spring, it also became an early voting location for the first time.

It's also become a hub for group conversations about issues ranging from housing inequities to racial justice to retirement planning as community members and community leaders try to identify the causes, effects and potential solutions for problems plaguing the city.

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by The Journal Times of Racine