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Library Hires Community Support Specialist

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The need to connect library patrons with resources beyond the library’s stacks or its computers drove the launch of a new pilot program at the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County.

The library system recently hired Shari Buchmann, a licensed social worker, as its first community support specialist, a position funded as part of a $27,600 grant the library received from the Gerald M. Kline Family Foundation in California. 

In the part-time position that she began May 13, Buchmann will connect patrons with social-service and mental-health resources.

“Certainly there’s a great need for a variety of different social services, especially in the Youngstown area,” says Aimee Fifarek, the library’s executive director. 

“A library is a place of resources for the community. As their population has shifted and grown, they saw a need to have us also be a resource for services that are in the community,” Buchmann says. “The library is that kind of place. It’s a place of excellence and they wanted to meet their patrons at that point of need.”  

Library personnel often see patrons struggling with issues such as homelessness, symptoms of mental illness and drug abuse, Fifarek says. It was among the first areas of concern brought to her attention when she began at the library in late 2017. 

Over the past few months, the concerns librarians have had for patrons with these kinds of needs has come up often, she says. These are individuals “who are clearly in need, and the need goes beyond helping to connect them with materials in the library,” but dealing with the issues goes beyond what librarians learn during their education, she says. 

“We felt it would be a good step to bring in someone like Shari with her skill set,” Fifarek says.    

Buchmann has been involved in social work for 21 years, including spending the last 13 at the Area Agency on Aging 11. Her work experience also includes the foster care system and nursing homes. 

“My job is to do an assessment, see what their need is and set them in the right direction,” even filling out paperwork for the client and other necessary tasks, Buchmann says. She is also training library staff in issues such as mental health and substance abuse.

Among the training library personnel will receive is de-escalation strategies, “so when staff are tying to discuss normal, local library business they have better tools at their disposal to communicate effectively,” Fifarek says.

San Francisco and Denver were pioneers in introducing social services in libraries, Fifarek says. The Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association, recently started a discussion group for libraries that are offering or considering offering social services to discuss strategies for implementing programs effectively. 

“It’s becoming more and more common, unfortunately,” she says. “I would love for this need to not exist.”

Main Library downtown will serve as Buchmann’s home base, but she will meet with patrons at other branches in the PLYMC system as needed.

“We don’t want to not be there for someone in the community,” she says.    

The pilot program will run for nine months, Fifarek says. During that time, data will be collected on its effectiveness to determine whether a need exists to fund a full-time staff person to provide the service. 

Pictured: Shari Buchmann will serve as community support specialist at the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County’s nine-month pilot program.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.