For Halifax’s only library social worker, a ‘circle of care’ extends to all

Sheena Jamieson helps staff and customers build better relationships

On any given day people from all walks of life can be found at the Halifax Central Library on Spring Garden Road. It’s a bustling and well-used facility, and as the library’s community navigator, Sheena Jamieson knows people don’t just come to find a book.

Since starting in January 2019, the social worker has been working to help meet the diverse needs of those at the library, from customers to staff.

“We get requests every day that you just don’t expect,” said Jamieson.

“Sometimes the requests are big and really do involve a community response, a bigger response.”

Jamieson works as a resource to help library staff interact with the more vulnerable customers effectively and compassionately.

“It can be heavy,” said Jamieson.

Halifax Public Libraries hired social worker Sheena Jamieson in January 2019.
Halifax Public Libraries hired social worker Sheena Jamieson in January 2019.   Alexandra Skultety

Jessica Prince, the teen services librarian, appreciates Jamieson’s guidance. Prince started just before the central branch opened in 2014.

She’s organized regional teen services training days with Jamieson, which have helped staff build better personal and professional boundaries. That includes how to use social media properly when interacting with teens or how to practice self care.

“Sometimes, when you meet people, they can greatly affect you, especially if you know they’re suddenly going through something that’s upsetting,” Prince said.

“You want to help them anyway you can, but sometimes it’s easy to take that home or take too much of that on yourself.”

If Prince doesn’t have an answer, she turns to Jamieson for help. For example, Jamieson might know which shelters are more welcoming for certain ages or whether child protective services should be called in response to a particular issue. Jamieson might also meet with someone directly.

Jamieson did a needs assessment shortly after beginning her position, and overdose intervention training was identified as a priority by staff. Naloxone is used to reverse an opioid overdose and each library branch is now equipped with a naloxone kit. One has never been used, but the goal is to be prepared.

Jamieson is also the direct supervisor for the library’s four security officers. They, along with other staff, receive non-violent crisis intervention training that teaches them how to de-escalate situations verbally.

“If the time comes to de-escalate something we’re usually successful because they’ve already done that work of getting to know our regulars,” said Jamieson.

Jessica Prince is the teen services librarian at the Halifax Central Library.
Jessica Prince is the teen services librarian at the Halifax Central Library.   Alexandra Skultety

Library part of ‘circle of care’

The trust that the library’s customers have in the staff is one thing that surprised Jamieson over the year she’s been there.

The library has even become an important part of the “circle of care” for some, she said.

A few customers call every week to let staff know how they’re doing if they haven’t been able to make it in.

One program that Jamieson feels has worked really well in developing these relationships is the library’s Coffee Corner. While a free coffee and banana might not sound like much, it can go a long way, said Jamieson.

“That connection piece is so possible through very small things. It doesn’t take much to reach out and get to know people,” she said.

Sometimes, up to 100 people attend.

Jamieson finds it’s a great way to check in with someone and ask if they need help getting something done or a referral. She feels she can make suggestions in a casual way or just see how someone’s week is going.

While Jamieson doesn’t typically take on individual clients, she tries to develop partnerships with the service sector.

“There might be a wonderful resource out there, but who is going to connect them to it?” she said.

Adapting to change

As libraries work to reduce barriers and become a space for everyone in the community, Caleb Redekop feels staff require the tools to adapt to the change. He has been the community outreach co-ordinator at the Kitchener Public Library in Ontario since August 2018.

“Library schools are slowly adapting to this, but not for employees that have been in the field for 20 plus years,” said Redekop.

Before Redekop’s position was created, the Kitchener library brought in social work students starting in 2016. He said it’s hard to measure what the impacts have been.

Police are rarely called, said Redekop, and the library doesn’t have its own security staff. City security are located nearby and can be called if necessary, which he said does happen.

Last year, the Halifax Central Library had 3,703,612​ visits.
Last year, the Halifax Central Library had 3,703,612​ visits.   Alexandra Skultety

Last year, there were 3,703,612​ visits to the Halifax Central Library.

For now, Jamieson is the only social worker in the library. After a year on the job, though, she feels it’s a “no brainer.”

“On its face this might not seem what a library does,” she said, adding that “if you work in a library you understand the importance of it.”

Prince echoes that support.

“I hope this is a trend going forward for many libraries,” she said.

Alexandra Skultety

Alexandra Skultety

Alex has worked in the radio industry for over 10 years at stations throughout BC and central Alberta. She has a Bachelor's Degree in political science and recently moved to Halifax to take the one-year journalism program at the University of King's College.

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1 comment

  1. Wonderful article. I’m so proud of ‘our’ library, especially it’s inclusiveness. Now I know this extends much further than I realized. Well done!

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