Know what makes me happy? Stories about librarianship changing lives for the positive.
Know what makes me sad? Stories about libraries falling down on the job.
Of course, I’d prefer to share the former type of story on my blog. My purpose, after all, is to promote all kinds of librarianish goodness that I encounter while pursuing my adventures. But I think it’s also important to remember that librarians make mistakes and examining those mistakes can be a learning experience. So, I’ll share a tale of library failure in the hope that I won’t make the same mistake if I’m ever in a similar situation.
In researching ways that public libraries support the health and wellness needs of their communities, I came across A Pilot Study of Health Information Resource Use in Rural Public Libraries in Upstate New York by Mary Grace Flaherty and Michael E. Luther from 2011. (Unless you have access to the scholarly journal Public Library Quarterly, you’ll probably only be able to see the article’s abstract, but not the full text. Sorry about that, but I’ll do my best to summarize.) I was particularly interested in this study because I live in rural upstate New York and am generally very pleased with the services I receive at my own public libraries. I was expecting to read good things.
In their study, Flaherty and Luther sent recent graduates of a Master’s of Science in Library and Information Science program into 10 libraries to ask the reference question, “Do vaccines cause autism?” The point of this was to discover what kinds of health information resources the library staff would point the questioners towards. What the researchers found was that in only two cases out of 10 did library staff provide material from credible sources that actually addressed the question asked. In eight of the 10 cases, library staff provided material that did not even answer the question. Resources provided were often out of date or non-authoritative, and some were anecdotal and non-scientific materials that warned of the dangers of vaccines, rather than information from current, reputable, medically-based sources.
Think about that for a second… 80% of libraries did not provided resources that addressed the question that was asked. That’s an astounding failure rate. It’s especially concerning if you consider the trust that people place in their libraries when seeking health-related information. According to a Pew Research Center article, “73% of all [people surveyed] ages 16 and over say libraries contribute to people finding the health information they need.” Patrons are relying on library staff to guide them to appropriate resources to answer their health-related questions and (at least in the case of the Flaherty & Luther study) 80% of libraries are letting them down.
I know the sample of size of this study – 10 public libraries – is very small and generalizations cannot be made from it about all public libraries. I know the article reporting on the study is from 2011. Maybe things have changed for the better since then. It’s also worth pointing out that the people asking the questions in this study were library students who presumably knew how to find answers from credible sources on their own. But I’m disappointed to think of all the patrons who may not be getting good information when they visit those eight problematic upstate libraries.
Since I hope someday to work at an upstate New York public library, what lessons will I take away from this situation so that I don’t do what other library staff did?
- Of course, I’m going to remember that I am a librarian and not a healthcare provider, so I won’t offer medical advice, but point patrons towards reliable resources that can help answer their health-related questions.
- If I’m the one answering reference questions, I’m going to make damned sure to direct patrons to up-to-date, credible resources. Off the top of my head, I’d probably make MedlinePlus my first stop in directing people to health-related information, since it’s run by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
- It’s probably worth checking out the new Libraries Transform Health Literacy Toolkit from the American Library Association and National Network of Libraries of Medicine. I’d hope this would help me learn about other current, authoritative sources of health information that I could use in my work.
- I might even pursue a Consumer Health Information Specialization (CHIS) certification offered by the Medical Library Association if I want to be really hardcore in serving the health information needs of my community.
- If I’m the library director and not the one answering reference questions directly, I’ll develop a library policy regarding answering health questions and encourage and empower my staff to learn which resources are preferable to others for this purpose.
Now that I’ve pontificated for a bit, I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever sought health information from your local public library? Were you happy with the answer you received? What resources do you use when you have a health-related question? How do you know they’re authoritative?