A young woman on her own for the first time needs help navigating the rental market. A senior citizen needs help interpreting a bill he received in the mail. A homeless couple just needs access to a phone so they can make an important call.
Social workers often help people resolve complicated issues involving health insurance, housing and the complicated landscape of Medicaid. They also meet people where they are — to help resolve problems big and small.
One logical place to provide these services is the public library. At Richland Library, one of the people there to help is Lee Patterson, director of social work.
When Patterson earned her master’s in social work from the University of South Carolina in 2012, she never imagined putting it to use at Richland Library — or any library. But 10 years later, she is doing exactly what she set out to do when she entered the field: help people.
The idea of embedding social workers in public libraries began at the San Francisco Public Library, which became the first library system to get a full-time social worker in 2009. Since then, over 50 public libraries around the country have followed suit. One of the earliest was Richland Library, which was highlighted in an NPR piece on the emerging trend in 2022.
The library received a two-year grant from the Knight Foundation in 2013 to educate the community on health insurance and the Affordable Care Act, so when Patterson was hired, her initial assignment was to hold public information sessions about the ACA.
Once the grant ended, Patterson was hired full-time to continue offering social work services through the library, which is well-suited for public accessibility. Although few libraries had social workers at the time, Patterson went to work navigating the mostly unexplored area. “They've given me a lot of freedom to say, ‘OK, this is the need that we're seeing right now, and this is how we think we should approach it’ and the freedom to go forth and see how we can help,” she says.
Last year, Richland County offered rental assistance, and someone who had never utilized community resources went to the library to get help accessing it. Patterson explained to the patron that these resources aren’t readily available just because someone needs them.
“When people get to the point that they need help, they come to the system, and they realize the system doesn't work the way they thought it did,” she says. “The system is overburdened, it's underfunded, it's understaffed.”
Sometimes issues not addressed by other public agencies fall to Patterson’s team. Her job is to make sure that her team knows what resources are available — and what resources are not — and that it is important to tell people the truth, even if the truth is inconvenient.
“Sometimes that is what my job is,” she says. “It’s letting people feel free to say that does not exist in our community right now and to just be there with you while you're sad and try to help you figure out another way around it.”
The services the library provides are unique because members of the community do not need a pre-existing reason to access its resources. If someone wants to see a social worker at their local hospital, they would need to be an admitted patient, but at the library, everyone is welcome.
“You don't have to have a library card. You don't have to be a resident of Richland County,” says Patterson. “You just have to have a heartbeat to talk to us.”