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Other Duties as Assigned – Public Librarians in the Heart of the Opioid Epidemic

by on September 11, 2017

Opioid abuse is reaching critical levels in many cities across the country. Some public librarians have taken on the battle firsthand. In Denver and Philadelphia, overdose fatalities in the library itself spurred action. Trained staff administer the anti-overdose medication Narcan and intervene when an overdose occurs.

In Philadelphia, four overdoses in one year spurred the McPherson Branch of the Free Public Library staff to take action. They proactively sought training on anti-overdose medication and learned how to administer it. They conduct overdose drills so they are prepared for incidents. Other measures include new rules for bathroom use and increased monitoring. [1]

The Denver Public Library has come into the spotlight as they face this challenge. In addition to training staff on Narcan, they added a social worker to its staff. They work more closely with their police department to address any misconduct. The police now have a more regular presence in the building. The library added security cameras to increase the ability to monitor activity. Some bathrooms were closed to limit the number of places to control.[2, 3]

Public libraries are tasked to serve everyone in their community. They are a place where marginalized people are welcomed and services are easily accessible. As librarians, we have a duty to make sure our spaces are safe and welcoming to all. This can be a daunting challenge in communities where drug abuse is prevalent.

Taking on this emerging community need should not be done lightly. Opioid abuse is more dangerous and prevalent than ever. Fentanyl is so potent that ingesting or inhaling just a few grains can lead to accidental overdose. “Drug tourists” travel to places where they can obtain cheaper drugs.[4]

Dealing with societal issues often comes to the forefront in libraries. To be fully engaged in our communities, taking on these challenges head-on reframes what it means to be a public library. Some staff may be comfortable on the frontline of a drug overdose. This approach requires a higher level of training and risk management than what is traditionally encountered at libraries. It is not the only strategy or plan of attack. Assess your community’s needs. Learn what resources are available, including social services and law enforcement.


[1] Newall, Mike. “For these Philly librarians, drug tourists and overdose drills are part of the job.” June 1, 2017. Accessed July 28, 2017. http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/mike_newall/opioid-crisis-Needle-Park-McPherson-narcan.html

[2] Rainey, Libby. The Denver Post. “Denver police bring new focus to downtown library amid spike in drug use, illegal activity.” July 10, 2017. Accessed July 28, 2017. http://www.denverpost.com/2017/07/07/denver-police-downtown-library-drug-use-illegal-activity/

[3]Sakas, Michael. “How Denver Public Library Balances Books And Being A Homeless Shelter.” May 17, 2017. Accessed July 28, 2017. http://www.cpr.org/news/story/how-denver-public-library-balances-books-and-being-a-homeless-shelter.

[4]Simon, Scott. “Librarians In Philadelphia Train To Thwart Drug Overdoses.” June 3, 2017. Accessed July 28, 2017. http://www.npr.org/2017/06/03/531347278/librarians-in-philadelphia-train-to-thwart-drug-overdoses.

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