Niles District Library partners with area libraries to offer social service workers

Published 9:58 am Monday, June 18, 2018

NILES — While libraries have long served their community in a number of ways, today’s patrons often turn to the library for assistance, finding jobs or getting connected with local aid resources.

At the Niles District Library, the trend is no different, and staff members are often seeing these needs arise. Officials wanted to do something about it.

Thanks to a three-year, federally-funded grant from the Library of Michigan, the Niles District Library was awarded $200,000 for a “Social Workers in Rural and Small Libraries” project. With the funds, the library was able to hire Social Services Manager Tiffany Russell. Russell, who has a master’s in social work, joined the team about four weeks ago and will help to address the various needs of library patrons.

“There are all types of people that come to the library … and they look to the library as a place of resource,” Russell said. “Many of those needs are social services related.”

Wanting to help others in the surrounding community, the Niles District Library has made the project into a partnership that will serve six other libraries, including Dowagiac, Cassopolis, Van Buren, Benton Harbor, Watervliet and Bridgman. Through the partnership, Russell and two paid interns, who will work part-time starting in the fall, will visit the local libraries to serve patrons and assess the area’s different needs.

As a social services manager, Russell will help to connect people with local resources, whether that is housing or food needs. She will also help people fill out paperwork or initiate a job search, among other responsibilities.

Nancy Studebaker, the library director, said because libraries are open and welcoming places, they often see people who need help with basic needs come to their doors.

“We deal with people who are homeless, people that have drug problems, people that just need to find food or shelter or heating, and we have to be able to help with that wide variety,” Studebaker said.

Last year, Studebaker said the library had an intern named Tracy Rudi. Rudi, who is studying social services at Western Michigan University, helped out at the library. 

“It was no time at all that we realized we couldn’t live without Tracy,” Studebaker said. “Then, we decided we really could use a social services worker for so many people in the library.”

While Studebaker said library staff do not mind helping people with these needs, they do not have the specialized knowledge to address these issues that a social services worker does.

Sitting at her desk on a Friday afternoon, Russell said she was looking forward to getting to know the various communities so that she can address their needs. 

While Studebaker said similar projects have been implemented in libraries across the country, the Niles District Library is among the first of the country’s “smaller” libraries to utilize a social worker on site, presenting an opportunity for Niles to serve as a role model for other libraries.

“Now we are going to have the chance to explore how social workers can help provide services at smaller rural libraries and part of our grant project would be to disseminate [information] through conferences what our experience has been,” Studebaker said.

Those interested in meeting with Russell one on one can fill out paperwork at the library or call to set up an appointment. Russell will have drop-in office hours from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information call the library at (269) 683-8545.

Russell said she looks forward to getting to know the area and helping to address needs.

“If there is a social service worker here, someone that has that background and the knowledge to help them meet their needs that is awesome,” Russell said. “This is a new and innovative thing, and I am looking forward to growing it into its full potential.”