New EPL social worker seeks to provide resources to patrons, staff


Oreste Visentini/The Daily Northwestern

Justine Janis, the Evanston Public Library social worker. Janis said she hopes her position in the library helps break down barriers traditionally associated with seeking assistance.

Kristina Karisch, Web Editor

When Justine Janis was applying for jobs in the Chicago area, she learned of an Evanston-based social worker position. Despite not knowing where exactly she would be based, she was intrigued.

Janis — who holds a master’s degree in social work — had previously worked with veterans as a psychosocial rehabilitation and recovery fellow and at Thresholds, a rehabilitation center in Chicago. But she said she prefers helping community members in their everyday lives, outside hospitals and clinics.

“I really value community work, that’s what my training has been in,” Janis said. “It’s really important to see people in different settings, (and) I don’t really like to be in an office.”

Her wish to work directly with the community came true in February, when she became the first full-time social worker at the Evanston Public Library. Since starting her job, Janis said, she has formed relationships with both library patrons and staff members, assisting them with outreach and programming.

“The staff and the patrons depend upon her,” EPL director Karen Danczak Lyons said. “If they’re having a good day, they’re happy to be here, and if they’re having a bad day, they know they can talk to her and it’s really comforting to them.”

EPL board president Benjamin Schapiro said libraries and social workers inherently compliment each other. He said libraries should be “safe spaces,” and that the addition of a social worker provides another way for EPL to serve the community.

Danczak Lyons said Janis — who serves both patrons and staff — brings a calming and supportive influence to the library. Janis regularly holds staff training sessions to address topics from mental health to homelessness, and said she often consults with staff about individual patrons.

Despite her technical title as a licensed outpatient clinician, Janis said she thinks of her job in less clinical terms. When she meets with patrons, Janis said she primarily listens to their stories and then refers them to outside services if necessary.

Janis said her position in the library is unique because it breaks down barriers traditionally associated with seeking social services or mental health assistance. To see her, patrons don’t have to fill out an intake form or schedule an appointment.

“There are lots of barriers for people who need services to get them to make that phone call or say, ‘Yes, I want to meet,’” Janis said. “Being here at the library eliminates a lot of the stigma. You don’t have to say, ‘I’m going to see my therapist.’ You’re just going to the library.”

Still, Janis said some patrons remain wary of talking to a social worker, so she tries to maintain an informal presence throughout the library. She said some of her most rewarding experiences have come when patrons gain the courage to talk to her after months of indecision.

Danczak Lyons said patrons from all walks of life seek out Janis’ help. Roughly half of those who meet with the social worker are either homeless or at risk of becoming so, she said. Others may be working multiple jobs to get ahead, but are in need of additional resources.

Janis said her job relates to the idea of providing equal access to resources across the community. In recent months, EPL employees have begun to talk publicly about equity at the library.

Following the suspension and eventual resignation of Lesley Williams — the library’s former head of adult services and only full-time black librarian — residents called for a full-scale equity audit of services and collections. In October, EPL board members approved a contract with DeEtta Jones and Associates, an equity, diversity and inclusion assessment consultant. The firm will provide equity training to library and city employees from the end of 2017 through the start of 2018, Danczak Lyons said.

Janis also works with student interns, who supplement her position and allow her to move between library branches without leaving gaps in service.

According to EPL’s website, about 16 social workers are employed across libraries in the U.S. The first social worker was hired in 2009 at the San Francisco Public Library.

Janis said she and her counterparts in other cities regularly check in with each other to exchange ideas and experiences.

“A lot of libraries are trying to get social workers,” she said. “As other entities are getting shut down because of lack of funding, the need is still there, people still need services. The library is one place that … serves as a warming and cooling center where people can come and seek refuge.”

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Twitter: @kristinakarisch