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A UT graduate student has studied how libraries can better serve poor and homeless people in their communities.

Olivia Forehand of Nashville is a graduate student in the School of Information Sciences in the College of Communication and Information. Her research, conducted last spring for the course Diversity Leadership in Information Organizations, taught by Professor Bharat Mehra, will be published this month in the International Journal of Information, Diversity, and Inclusion.

“I have many privileges in my life, and it is my aim to use my privileges to help others,” Forehand said, adding that she sees librarianship as a way “to work towards correcting some of the main injustices in the world.

Olivia Forehand
Olivia Forehand

“All kinds of people use public libraries, and in my future as a librarian I see it as my job to not only assist these patrons but to welcome them with open arms.”

“My main goal is to discover more ways libraries can assist patrons who are in poverty,” she said, noting that public libraries can help this vulnerable population by doing more than answering reference questions and recommending books to read. Libraries can also be clearinghouses for information about services and additional community resources.

To get a snapshot of the issue, Forehand focused on the Pruitt Branch of the Nashville, Tennessee, Public Library. According to library system’s master plan, this branch is located in the part of the city that is home to the area’s greatest proportion of poor residents, many of whom, in Forehand’s words, “suffer from the digital divide and similar transportation divide.”

Forehand studied the branch library’s website, interviewed some staff members, observed patrons’ library use, and suggested surveying patrons to gather more information about their needs.

Forehand said the Nashville Public Library system and specifically the Pruitt Branch are trying to broaden their reach by offering many resources for people who are poor or homeless.

The library’s holdings include research about homelessness and poverty, autobiographies of people who had once been homeless, novels, and other materials that could be helpful or educational. The library’s catalog shows items in all branches, so patrons can place a hold on an item anywhere in the library system and have it sent to the branch easiest for them to visit.

The library stocks pamphlets and provides website links to community resources where patrons can find help with education, employment and job training, finances, health, housing and food, youth and children, and additional services. Its calendar of upcoming events includes some that could be beneficial to people experiencing homelessness or poverty, including a free Summer Lunch at the Library program for children and teens and a Cooking Smart, Cooking Fun program that provides meal ingredients and instructions for preparing them.

“Even small changes can improve the lives of patrons,” she noted in her final report. “In July 2017, the Nashville Public Library system stopped charging fines for overdue items in order to ensure the accessibility of their collections for all patrons. By continuing to implement policies such as this one, the library system will take important steps towards promoting equal access to library services for all patrons.”

Forehand created a bibliography of materials on how libraries can help vulnerable populations and compiled best practices by looking at the services provided by three other libraries—the New York Public Library system, the Los Angeles Public Library, and the UT Libraries.

Among her suggestions for additional measures libraries can take to serve the homeless and poor:

  • Create more programming to help patrons who are poor or homeless.“Classes on job searching and resume writing would be of particular benefit,” she noted.
  • Add more books that could be helpful to this population.
  • Provide training to increase staff members’ cultural competency.
  • Partner with a social worker who can provide on-site assistance to patrons.

“I think everything found in my study can be applied globally,” Forehand said. “It’s important for libraries everywhere to work with their communities and partner with local organizations and nonprofits that are already doing work to help people experiencing homelessness.

“It’s also necessary for library workers to push to end the stigma surrounding homelessness. People don’t want to be confronted with homelessness because it makes them uncomfortable, but nothing will change if we try to brush it under the rug or keep these people out of libraries.”

CONTACT:

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)