When we think about potential partners in promoting public health, let’s not overlook public libraries. Libraries in the 21st century provide a lot more than shelves filled with books. Libraries may provide services that support literacy, social connections, access to emerging technologies and other features that can positively affect health outcomes:
What I’ve been wondering is, are libraries taking things further? Are there examples of libraries promoting not just public health, but public health law? Could public health leaders be working with libraries to educate members of their communities about how laws advance public health? Could more libraries actually be sites for public health interventions, and what changes in law and policy (including funding) would need to be made?
It’s a good time for the public health community to explore partnerships with libraries, because libraries are doing some serious self-examination and visioning for the future of their own. For example, bridging the digital divide between urban and rural communities, and between affluent and poor communities is increasingly embraced as a key part of the public library mission. By providing increased access to technology, especially computers and the internet, libraries provide pathways to economic opportunity and civic engagement, and ultimately better health.
Under PHAB Accreditation Standards (Standard 6.2), one of the essential public health functions is to educate the public about the meaning and benefit of public health laws. Some libraries and library associations have recognized this as intersecting with their competencies and missions. For example, libraries are partnering with health departments to provide information to support recovery from natural disasters, including by accessing government programs. Libraries collected resources to help members of their communities understand the Affordable Care Act and sign up for health insurance coverage. The health literacy function of libraries is important, but this is something more. This is the library program manager of the Wyoming State Library being recognized as a champion of change for his efforts to make libraries a safe and trusted place for Wyoming residents to learn about the Affordable Care Act and to access insurance coverage and services under the Act.
In addition to providing curated information about public health laws, libraries may themselves be sites for public health-related interventions. Simply by providing more equitable access to computers, libraries may facilitate access to health services provided over the internet, such as HIV and STI education or depression screening. Cities such as San Francisco and Denver have placed social workers in libraries to serve homeless persons who use the library. The Pima County, Arizona Health Department and Public Library partnered to place a public health nurse in the library for a similar purpose.
Libraries may be housed in aging buildings, or in buildings affected by natural disaster. Some libraries have used the need to remodel or rebuild as an opportunity to model sustainable building practices and to incorporate this into their educational mission. Examples include Billings, Montana, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Fayetteville, Arkansas. Libraries may also plant gardens on their grounds and use them to provide hands-on education about environmental health and healthy eating.
Public health practitioners strive to mobilize community partnerships, and frequently act as conveners of conversations aimed at identifying community needs and solutions. So do librarians. For example, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library collected key health data and analysis on its website and served as a core partner in that community’s efforts to understand, grapple with, and ultimately improve its health. The Queens Library HealthLink Program helped mobilize the community to learn about and address health disparities, especially with respect to cancer.
Cross-sector collaboration is critical to advancing public health. Libraries are frequently anchor institutions in their communities and can help educate the community about public health laws; serve as locations for public health interventions; convene community conversations; serve as demonstration sites for sustainable building practices; and reduce socio-economic disparities by increasing access to books, computers, the internet, and curated knowledge resources. In light of these unique strengths, public health may want to explore new and deeper partnerships with public libraries.
This post was prepared by Jill Krueger, J.D., director of the Network for Public Health Law—Northern Region.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.