More than just books: Bringing occupational therapy into the library

    Occupational therapy students complete placement at Edmonton Public Library branch

    By Rob Curtis on February 10, 2020

    In the east end of Edmonton, near a bend in the North Saskatchewan River, there’s a neighbourhood where people still know all their neighbours and greet each other on the street.

    The community of Beverly was a small coal-mining village until it was absorbed into the city of Edmonton in 1961. That small-town feeling of closeness and self-reliance persists to this day. “It’s a throwback to the way community used to be,” says Melissa Zerbin, second-year occupational therapy student in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. “It feels so disjointed and impersonal in other areas of the city, compared to Beverly, where everybody knows each other and takes care of each other.”

    Beverly does face some challenges, however. Much of its population has a low income, and its residents range from senior citizens to young newcomer families, raising the need for a variety of social and health-care services that can be difficult to deliver. There is a robust network of clinics and social organizations that work together very effectively to serve the community, but residents can be hesitant to enter a medical environment to access those services. The Department of Occupational Therapy recently undertook a student placement which brought occupational therapy right into the midst of the community, at the Abbottsfield – Penny McKee branch of the Edmonton Public Library.

    A library may seem like an odd place for occupational therapy students to set up shop, but in many ways, it’s a perfect fit. 

    “The library is very client-centred, and they’re always reaching out, trying to change and adjust and offer services that are most appropriate for the people accessing them. This is a real inspiration and it’s a great pairing with occupational therapy, because our profession is also very client-centred: you consider your client as a whole, and you tailor your services to that person,” says Zerbin, who, with fellow second-year student Meg Tronson, undertook the seven-week library placement in 2019. 

    Margo Till-Rogers, branch manager at the Abbottsfield – Penny McKee branch, agrees. “There’s such a natural fit between occupational therapy and libraries. Their focus on relationships, the idea of reducing barriers, the idea of making connections between people and organizations that can help them—that’s right in our wheelhouse, and that’s also what I saw Meg and Melissa do.”

    Early on, Tronson and Zerbin created a variety of handouts and other resources, but soon realized that the community needed something different. 

    “We discovered that people weren’t looking to have information imparted or to be educated,” says Tronson. “We started having conversations with people about things like stress, community and gratitude, and spent a lot of time listening. We came to understand that the community had a lot of wisdom to share with us.” 

    Tronson and Zerbin began to spend time with the youth that came to the library after school, building relationships by sitting down and playing Uno or by bringing in a hacky sack. They created a drop-in group, the “Friends of Abbottsfield”, where people could talk about stress management and mental wellness. They engaged with the local Primary Care Network and the network of community organizations. Gradually, they earned the trust of the community. 

    “They’ve had a lot of people parachute in, tell them what to do and then leave,” says Zerbin. “As we built trust within the library, we built trust with the customers, and that was huge. Eventually, we even started to get one-on-one referrals to help people with other issues, such as housing.”

    Though the placement has now ended, Tronson and Zerbin have left a lasting impact in the library and in Beverly. The library’s staff has benefited from resources the students created and ideas they shared. “They gave very practical tips, for example, in recognizing the reasons behind dysregulated behaviour when it happens with our youth, and ways that we can interact with them to see the behaviours we’d like to see,” says Till-Rogers. 

    Their initiatives have also begun to spread to other branches—one nearby branch has just purchased some hacky sacks, recognizing how it can lead to positive interaction between staff and young clients and build stronger relationships.

    Another placement at another library branch is under way, and Till-Rogers sees a lot of potential for long-term collaboration between occupational therapists and the library. “I think about newcomer parents who are looking to engage with community services. I think about adults facing social isolation. In a very short time, I saw community members being very open and vulnerable with Meg and Melissa—people they hadn’t met before—and that is noteworthy. 

    “Whatever they’re doing in that program, they’re doing something right; those are great students.”