As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been researching how public libraries support health and wellness in their communities. Yes, I did find an example of libraries doing a bad job of providing credible health information to their patrons. (You can read about it here.) But October is Health Literacy Month, so now it’s time to focus on the myriad ways in which libraries do an excellent job of promoting health and wellness.
On July 12, 2018, two library staff members at Emily Fowler Central Library in Denton, Texas literally saved a man’s life. By performing CPR and using an automated external defibrillator (AED) on an unconscious patron, they kept the man alive while waiting for paramedics to arrive. Librarians across the country are also “saving lives in the stacks” by being trained to use the drug Narcan to counteract opioid overdoses in their workplaces. These are just two examples of public libraries supporting the health and wellness needs of their communities; there are numerous others. Although public librarians are not medical professionals, and public libraries are not medical buildings, they nevertheless have a long history of supporting the physical, mental, and social health of their patrons.
One way that public libraries are meeting community health and wellness needs is by providing health information to their patrons. This can be a challenge. After all, librarians are not there to provide medical advice, but they can and should provide access to accurate and authoritative information that will answer the patron’s questions.
So, how do librarians know what the best sources of information are? One resource is http://publiclibrary.health, a toolkit from by the Public Library Association to provide healthy community tools for public libraries. An increasing number of public librarians are also pursuing Consumer Health Information Specialization (CHIS) certification, which is offered through the Medical Library Association (MLA) and the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM). This training prepares a librarian to be a “confident, expert provider of health information to [their] community” by addressing topics like:
- getting to know the community and health consumers
- learning about both general and specialized health resources that can be used to aid patrons
- how to evaluate health information for quality
- effective communication techniques and training patrons to use health resources
- understanding health literacy and how to help patrons who may have low levels of health literacy
- technology and health
- ethical and legal issues surrounding the provision of health information
As stated earlier, public librarians are not healthcare workers and most know when they have reached the limits of their professional abilities to help patrons with health-related needs. So they have learned to call in reinforcement. In recent years, several public libraries have addressed the health and wellness needs of their patrons by hiring social workers, nurses, and other professionals as an official part of the staff to help address issues that librarians may not be qualified to tackle.
Social workers as library staff are not an entirely new idea. In 2009, the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library became the first library in the country to hire a psychiatric social worker as a full-time member of their staff. Since then, an estimated 30 more public libraries have followed suit to the point where public library social work is considered an emerging field. Library social workers may provide support to vulnerable populations — such as the homeless or low income individuals seeking help accessing social services like food stamps and Medicaid — and offer training to library staff in how to sensitively interact with patrons with a variety of needs. They may also work in a supervisory capacity, overseeing other social workers on staff, or even hiring patrons to assist their work. For example, at the Denver Public Library there is a peer navigator program which hires former homeless individuals and recovering addicts to help provide support to those currently affected by drugs and homelessness. (There is a great 10-minute video about this library program and one of the peer navigators. You can watch it here.)
Social workers are not the only health and wellness professionals to find their place on a public library staff. The Pima County Public Library in Tucson, Arizona has hired a registered nurse to assist patrons at the main library building. The Library Nurse service is the result of a partnership with the Pima County Department of Health to make the library and safe and welcoming place for all patrons. The nurse helps to achieve this goal by providing intervention when patrons become disruptive or need medical care, training other library staff in ways to help de-escalate problematic patron encounters, supplying confidential physical assessments, case management, and basic first aid services to patrons, as well as administering flu vaccines, helping patrons sign up for health insurance, and working with other community partners to institute an after-school snack program for approximately 300 children. And all of this is done at the public library.
I have lots more information to share about public libraries supporting health and wellness in their communities, but I think this is a good stopping place for now. Stay tuned for future installments, when I’ll talk about visiting health services, mental health, and the fun health-based library programs and activities that I learned about in my investigations.
In the meantime, let me know your thoughts. Did you know about social workers and nurses being hired full-time by libraries to help patrons? What do you think of the idea? Are libraries good partners in solving the pressing health needs of a community?
I admit, my first thought upon getting past the part about librarians being educated on directing patrons to reputable medical sources was “Now that’s going too far into other agencies’ fields of expertise”, but after finishing and watching the video about the Denver library, I can’t agree enough that libraries are a logical middle ground for connecting them all. Of course I had heard that homeless people sometimes hung out in libraries, but was under the impression they weren’t exactly welcomed. Further proof that some people’s perception that libraries are no longer relevant in this digital world couldn’t be further from the truth.
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I think every library is probably different when it comes to welcoming (or lack thereof) people experiencing homelessness. I’m really pleased to learn about libraries that serve homeless people the same way they would any other patron and make an effort to meet the needs of this segment of the community. For example, in San Francisco, the library partners with a organization called Lava Mae which converts buses into mobile shower and toilet units that essentially deliver hygiene services to people who might need it at the library.
So many reasons why libraries are still so important and necessary today!
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