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Vermont librarians are providing more social services than ever. And they need help

Brick wall with a gray door that says "Rutland Free Library."
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
The Rutland Free Library, as pictured on Dec. 12, offers a variety of services to the public.

The Rutland Free Library is in an old brick building on the edge of downtown. Behind heavy wooden doors, comfy chairs and tables wrap around tall bookshelves.

Amy Williams, assistant director, has been working at Rutland Free for eight years and knows all the ins and outs of the library. At the entrance, she points out resources that visitors can take for free, like hats and gloves.

“We have a warm things tree, and sometimes some hygiene kits. Those always go super fast,” Williams said.

The library also offers drug testing kits to grab on the way out.

“Essentially, it’s test trips so you can test your street drugs for fentanyl," she said. "We had four and they were gone in under three hours — maybe in an hour; I just didn’t think to look that quickly."

More from Vermont Public: Addressing Vermont’s increase in opioid overdose deaths

In the middle of the main floor, there is the librarian help desk. Staff consider this the mission control center of the library, built to handle the everyday library stuff, like checking books out. But the staff are also mindful of something else: security. Because of past issues with disruptive situations, they like to keep an eye on who’s in the library, where they are, and what they’re doing.

“So every time we switch over, before you sit down at the help desk, you’re supposed to do a walk up here and just see who’s here," Williams said.

The bathroom is another place in the library that the staff pay extra attention to. It’s near the entrance of the building and open to anyone, but staff keep the keys at the help desk.

Despite these precautions, this past November, a patron almost overdosed.

“He came in to use the restroom, and after several minutes he hadn’t come out of the restroom and someone said, ‘Hey, that person’s in the restroom and not responding,'" said Randal Smathers, the director of Rutland Free. “I knocked and used my master key and went in, and he was laying under the sink and his syringe was in the sink."

"I knocked and used my master key and went in, and he was laying under the sink and his syringe was in the sink."
Randal Smathers, director of the Rutland Free Library

Smathers was able to revive the person, and they ended up being OK, but this wasn’t a one-time occurrence. It was the latest in a string of incidents that stretch the definition of the typical services a library might provide. And Rutland Free isn’t alone. It was one of the concerns documented in a recent report to the Vermont Legislature on the status of libraries across the state.

Catherine Delneo, the Vermont state librarian and commissioner of libraries, said libraries have always been a point of contact to help connect people to social services.

“Someone who needed help accessing a government service or a social service may have gone to the library to do that in the 1950s, the 1980s, and they're still doing it today,” Delneo said.

But what is changing is that more people aren’t getting the help they need for basic services, which has meant the library is asked to fill that gap.

“Because we're still open to everyone in public libraries, we're still welcoming everyone,” Delneo said. “But sometimes people’s behaviors in the library could be a little bit challenging for staff to manage.”

Many librarians across the state, including Jennifer Murray, the director at the South Burlington Public Library, echo this sentiment.

“People who have been working in libraries for a long time in particular find themselves saying, 'Wait a second, this isn't what I signed up for,'” Murray said.

In Barre, at the Aldrich Public Library, assistant director Garrett Grant said one way his library addresses some of those rising needs is by providing snacks during after school programming.

“I would get kids that would come here just to get snacks,” Grant said. "At my teen night programs, we go through a lot of food, we feed [the kids] a meal.”

A beige box mounted on a wall with the words "sharps disposal" on it.
Anna Berg
Vermont Public
A grant-funded program that allowed for the safe disposal of needles inside the Aldrich Public Library's sharps disposal container recently ran out of funds.

Aldrich also offers a place to put used needles. The sharps container is located in their bathroom on the ground floor and is being held together with book tape. Grant said it's old, but that’s not the only issue: Right now, the container is at capacity and whose job it is to empty it is up in the air. The local fire department used to have grant funding to empty them, but then it ran out. Without space in the containers, librarians find needles on the ground.

“When it was at its fullest, and you couldn’t add anything else, that’s when you do start to see them around the library,” Grant said.

At the Aldrich, the librarians have to dispose of the needles themselves. Grant says a volunteer showed them how to use an empty plastic water bottle to pick them up safely.

Tables, chairs and books inside a large room at the Fletcher Free Library.
Sam Jefferson
Vermont Public
Fletcher Free Library, in Burlington, offers harm reduction kits to patrons.

In Burlington, Vermont’s largest library, Fletcher Free, has also been responding to issues related to substance use. Mary Danko, their library director, said they started to offer harm reduction bags to patrons.

They include Narcan, an overdose reversal medication, fentanyl test strips, and they recently added a supply of xylazine test strips to the bags as well.

But offering these extra services requires more resources from the library.

“We're being asked to do more and more and more,” Danko said. “What sometimes doesn't go hand in hand with that is the funding.”

Some libraries are or would like to partner with social workers in Vermont.

“When there’s a high community need for something, it can be really beneficial to have a library and a service organization working together,” said Catherine Delneo, the Vermont state librarian and commissioner of libraries.

For many libraries, it’s not an option because of the expenses that come with standing up an additional social work unit.

In the meantime, many librarians say they want to help everyone who walks through the doors, but it can be really draining.

"Just come in and do as much as you can and do the best you can. Offer what you can, be honest when you can’t, and then, you know, go home and take care of yourself."
Garrett Grant, assistant director of the Aldrich Public Library

“There’s been some times I’ve felt really defeated,” said Garrett Grant, the assistant director at the Aldrich Public Library.

He said he tries to set boundaries at work.

"Just come in and do as much as you can and do the best you can,” Grant said. “ Offer what you can, be honest when you can’t, and then, you know, go home and take care of yourself.”

This story is a collaboration between Vermont Public and the Community News Service. The Community News Service is a student-powered partnership between the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and community newspapers across Vermont. 

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Anna Berg is a junior at the University of Vermont. She is majoring in anthropology and political science and minoring in reporting and documentary storytelling.

Sam Jefferson is graduating from the University of Vermont in May of 2024, where he majored in journalism and minored in philosophy.
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