Terrill BuddEmily Turk | CUPE Communications

Terrill Budd and her colleagues at the Calgary Central Library know the opioid crisis is on their doorstep. Budd’s branch is located in the city’s Downtown East Village, a neighbourhood that sees a high rate of EMS responses to opioid-related events and is currently being considered for a supervised consumption site.

“I spoke at convention about two of my colleagues who, at closing, found a woman unresponsive in a bathroom and had to do CPR on her until EMS arrived,” says Budd. “It was huge for them. It was very emotional.”

Libraries and their workers have always responded to social and community challenges. But as social services become casualties of provincial budget cuts, libraries have become the new front lines for homelessness, poverty, and a major public health emergency: the opioid crisis.

“I see the impact it’s having on the community,” says Budd, who is the chief steward of CUPE 1169, representing Calgary and Cochrane library workers. “It’s heartbreaking to see, and we see it every day.”

Canadian libraries have had a few years now to grapple with the country’s opioid crisis. In that time, they’ve introduced a range of policies that have prompted an important conversation about whether library workers should be the ones to intervene medically when someone is thought to have overdosed.

While some public libraries have introduced voluntary naloxone training programs for staff, Calgary Public Library has decided to equip private security guards at its city-centre locations with naloxone in case a patron has an opioid overdose. Budd says it took some time for the library to decide who would deliver the naloxone.

“Library workers care. And they’re going to try to help,” says Budd. “But it’s not something we’re actually trained to manage and for most of us, it’s not what we signed on for.”

Budd feels the tension for library workers between their role as helpers who want to serve their patrons with compassion, and the necessary boundaries of their job descriptions. “For me, this is a health and safety issue. I want the staff in the branch to feel safe at work. And I want to help—but as a library worker, not a social worker or a nurse.”

Budd says it’s a difficult balance.

No matter what kind of overdose policy a library adopts, Budd emphasizes that staff participation should be voluntary and that workers, regardless of employment status, must be supported through traumatic events. “I feel supported by my organization, but I also work at a large branch and have many colleagues to lean on,” she says. “Those of us working at smaller branches feel the anxiety in a greater way.”