Why libraries can become the heartbeat of health information

Americans trust and depend on their local libraries to disseminate factual, credible knowledge.

We are in the midst of a sea change in healthcare—fully cognizant that we need ways to bring care to people rather than always expecting them to come to the clinician.

The good news is that we already have the infrastructure in place to make this happen—the 9,000 public libraries across our nation. And there are communities that already have social workers, clinical psychologists and nurses actively working in libraries.

Surprised? You’re not the only one. In a recent conversation with a colleague, I mentioned my life-long love of libraries. He chuckled at my old-fashioned ways and tried to tell me no one goes to the library any more. I disagreed, and suggested he take a minute to visit his local library to see how many people rely on and use this precious community resource.

I had forgotten this conversation until three weeks later when he called me back. “You were right, Carla. Every night when I get off the bus, I walk past my neighborhood library. So one night I decided to stop in. Wow! It was full of people!”

The use of the library
According to a 2017 report from the Pew Research Institute, Americans trust and depend on their local libraries to disseminate factual, credible knowledge.
  • About eight in 10 adults (78 percent) say public libraries help them find trustworthy and reliable information.
  • 76 percent say libraries help them learn new things.
  • 56 percent believe libraries help them find information to aid with decisions they must make.

In addition, this data also indicate that “Millennials are more likely to have visited a public library in the past year than any other adult generation.”

I’m talking about knowledge and community building. Communities rely on their library as a hub; it’s part of the social fabric that embraces every walk of life, every socio-economic level, all abilities and all backgrounds. Libraries offer space for early or election day voting, meetings, tutoring, classes on everything from how to develop a podcast to clipping coupons (and more), and access to new technologies that patrons can try out and use.

Libraries and health services
San Francisco was the first library in the nation to hire a full-time social worker; today, numerous libraries across the United States have on-site nurses and social workers engaged with library patrons around health and wellness.

With passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, many libraries used federally hired navigators to help patrons enroll in health insurance. As a health professional, think about services available within your community and envision the possible health-related role of your local library.

Noah Lenstra, assistant professor of library and information studies, School of Education, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has done a lot of thinking on this topic. He provides wonderful guidelines to librarians on how to work with local hospitals and health systems to offer health programs in a community, including some of the examples that follow.

A five-year ongoing partnership between the library in Chillicothe, Ohio, and Adena Community Health offers the Healthy Kids Summer Fun Challenge. This three-county program, reaching more than 2,000 children, calls for participants to read a certain number of books and complete at least eight different physical challenges during the summer. They log both activities and, upon completing the reading and activity goals, are entered in a drawing for a bike or other prize. Also in Ohio, Metro Health Systems partnered with the Cleveland School System to make a computer in each school library available, before and after school, to parents. Parents can come in to their child’s school library to log in to their Metro Health patient portal to make appointments, send emails to their clinicians, check vaccination status, and so much more.

A connection with a library’s bookmobile outreach can bring healthcare services to a community. For example, the Chicopee Public Library in Massachusetts joined forces with Baystate Health for a series of consumer health programs. Students in Matoon, Ill., trained for a 5K run through a program at their library and the Sarah Bush Lincoln Healthy Communities.

The list goes on of collaborative programs between libraries and local hospitals and health systems in many states including Delaware, Montana and North Carolina.

The Philadelphia Free Library system offers a variety of healthcare services to its urban population including blood pressure checks, a state-of-the-art kitchen and teaching classroom, classes offered by medical experts on CPR training, breast cancer awareness, and HIV and hepatitis B testing. They have partnered with others in the Philadelphia area to identify the health needs of their residents and design programs to meet those needs.

Libraries and drug overdoses
I know libraries in my home state of Ohio and many across the country now have naloxone available to combat opioid overdoses. Libraries provide quiet spaces that work well for studying, reading, researching, and tragically for some, a place to shoot up. The library is a public space open to all, including someone taking drugs. (Naloxone—brand name Narcan—is a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose.)

New York State is another region harnessing the power of the local library to address this epidemic. In 2016, the State legislature approved legislation that allows librarians to “maintain and administer opioid antagonists, such as narcan, for the treatment of overdoses.”

Thomas, library director in Newburgh, N.Y., captured the evolving role of librarians in addressing the opioid crisis in his community. “That’s what a library’s job is—to respond to the needs of the community. Those are their needs now,” he added. “Later, they may need Shakespeare. But those are their needs right now.”

One way we need to change healthcare is to bring wellness and care to where people are. Stop making people travel to clinics and hospitals that are often far away, unlike their neighborhood library. Where public transportation exists, you can bet the library will be one of the stops. Libraries are the heartbeat of a neighborhood. They are community connecting points, viable destinations for health-related or wellness-related activities for a community.

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