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Public libraries are vibrant community hubs offering meaningful services to millions of people. With their wealth of health information, knowledgeable staff, partnerships, and programs, libraries can be a centerpiece  for improving community health.

Why Libraries Are Important

Libraries in the United States are visited in person more than 1 billion times a year, surpassing the number of visits to healthcare providers. For millions of people, they are trusted, accessible, public gathering spaces.

This makes libraries important “third places” in communities, across rural and more urban areas. Third places are locations outside of home and work where people exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships.

A 2020 study found that counties with more library space, staff, materials, and programs, and higher utilization rates have better community health outcomes, even when accounting for differences in a community’s economic level and racial diversity.

Some of those benefits may be inherent products of having a third place that encourages things like literacy, community involvement, and entrepreneurship. Many public libraries take their commitment to health a step further — offering programs and initiatives specifically aimed at improving health literacy and health outcomes.

Explore five ways libraries serve as community health libraries:

1. Inspiring Movement Through Programming and Lending

An estimated 20-30% of libraries in the U.S. and Canada offer movement-based programming, for people of all ages. Increasing physical activity positively impacts physical and mental health.

The most common programs were yoga and movement-based early literacy programs, especially in urban and suburban libraries. Town and rural libraries were slightly more likely to have outdoor activities. These included fitness challenges and StoryWalk® programs, where the pages of a children’s book are mounted on signs along a walking trail.

Some libraries meld this newer focus on physical activity with their traditional lending function. As part of the Library of Things movement, patrons can get moving by checking out:

2. Supporting Healthy Eating

Many libraries foster healthy lifestyles through food-focused programming, holding nutrition and cooking classes or farmers’ markets. In addition, some offer programs that support people experiencing food insecurity or that help people grow their own food:

3. Serving as Community Health Hubs

Healthcare organizations are using libraries for pop-up clinics and mobile preventive care services, including screenings for diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol, and depression; immunizations; and mammograms.

The Pima County Public Library takes this a step further. Through a partnership with the county health department, public health nurses rotate through library branches, and one works in the library full-time.

As a central meeting place, libraries are a common venue for a range of health support groups, such as for:

  • Stroke
  • Chronic illness and disability
  • Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia caregivers
  • Breast and cervical cancer
  • Weight loss

4. Addressing Social Drivers of Health

Libraries serve as places of refuge for people experiencing homelessness, mental illness, or other health-related conditions. When there, people can meet many needs that impact their health — studying, searching for jobs, receiving healthcare services, connecting with others — at no cost and without judgment.

In a survey of Pennsylvania librarians, 94% said they had recently helped patrons with employment needs. More than half had recently helped people with financial literacy, transportation, legal aid, and enrollment in social benefits.

Nearly 60 libraries have added full-time licensed social workers to their staff since San Francisco first did so in 2009. Many more have part-time or student social workers or have provided social work training to other employees.

5. Improving Health Literacy and Health Information Access

No list about libraries would be complete without talking about literacy, a core mission of libraries. And that includes health literacy — which may increase a person’s ability to be in charge of their own health.

In a 2016 survey, 33% of people said libraries contribute “a lot” to helping people when they seek health information. In addition to offering access to medical journals, databases, and the internet, library employees often:

  • Help people apply for health insurance
  • Provide easy-to-understand articles about health issues
  • Maintain online or printed lists of community health resources
  • Help people find healthcare providers who meet their needs

Building a Community Health Library Takes a Community

While libraries are a growing and vital resource for community health, their efforts can be multiplied through collaboration.

In the Pennsylvania library survey, more than half of respondents said they sometimes didn’t know how to answer patrons’ health questions or solve their health-related social needs. Some reported seeking help from social workers, public health professionals, and medical professionals.

Partnering with community organizations, healthcare organizations, social services, or government agencies that have shared goals to improve the health of the local community can strengthen and grow these valuable library-based programs and services.

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