All 14 branches of the Milwaukee Public Library system have been closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus — and for good reason. In healthy times, people from all walks of life congregate at the public library.
Libraries usually provide an important social service, in addition to being a place for information, literature, and entertainment. But a librarian’s training mostly focuses on organizational skills. They are often ill-equipped to handle so much social interaction — especially among the vulnerable populations who depend on libraries for computers and meeting spaces.
“I don’t think I had any training in [mental health counseling],” said Abigail Phillips, a former public librarian. “You’re just kind of put out there.”
Phillips said that she’s noticed young queer people and victims of bullying consider the library a safe space, and librarians serve as impartial adult confidants.
“[Librarians] tend to be a bit more introverted, quiet, shy, and empathetic, and if you’re taking so many people’s emotions and feelings...it does become very tiring,” said Phillips.
Because of the stress, public librarians display disproportionately high rates of mental illness themselves. As many as half of academic librarians suffer as well.
Phillips, who now studies librarian mental health as a professor of information science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is part of a group that provides a creative outlet for librarians to help. They publish a zine, which is a kind of booklet of writing and visual art, called Reserve and Renew.
Issues are available to the public for purchase, and the proceeds go to benefit Mental Health First Aid, a “public education program that aims to help communities understand mental illnesses, seek timely intervention, and save lives.”