An Unexpected Partner to Improve Public Health: The Public Libraries
When defining innovation in public health two important characteristics to consider are partnership and collaboration between communities and health departments.
Partnerships allow for multiple perspectives on the development and design of a project, as well as a means of reaching the community outside of a health department’s traditional avenues. Different community partners may also raise awareness about a population in need of outreach that may have been sought after but unsuccessfully reached.
The perfect place for sparking innovation: public libraries
Enter public libraries. Public libraries are not just places for finding books and reading nooks. They often act as community centers that see a good deal of traffic. Many visit libraries to have access to computers and internet for job hunting or homework assignments, to ask for help receiving tax forms, or simply to have a place to sit down where they don’t have to purchase something. This gathering of the community is what makes libraries the perfect place for sparking innovation in public health.
We are hearing more and more that libraries have been an unconventional partner collaborating with local health departments to initiate public health improvements in their local communities. Recently, libraries have been covered in the news for partnering with health departments to address the opioid epidemic and rising sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates.
Training librarians to address the opioid epidemic
Because of their interaction with large segments of the community, librarians may find themselves on the frontlines of health crises like the opioid epidemic.
For example, in Philadelphia librarians sought training on how to administer Narcan and ensure they had a supply on hand, and in Boston, the Boston Public Health Commission has established a training program to train community members to be first responders in the event of an overdose.
“The trainings provided by BPHC equip Boston Public Library staff with knowledge, support, and perspective from professionals in the field, providing options for situations when emergencies arise and much-needed context for the broader issues involved in Boston and beyond.” , Assistant Manager, Neighborhood Services, Boston Public Library
Gathering space for youth and resource for STI educational sessions
In other situations, health departments have recognized libraries’ role as gathering places, and specifically in Douglas County, NE, a gathering place for youth. With STIs on the rise in young people, health officials in Douglas County sought out creative ways to address their community’s high rates of infection.
Realizing that the population they were trying to target were already gathering in the libraries, the department partnered with the library to provide educational sessions on STIs, and later to provide onsite rapid testing so that youth could access STIs information and testing in a space they were already utilizing, versus having to go to the health department.
These are just a few examples of how health departments have partnered with a specific organization (libraries) to reach their communities. Our hope is that these stories of public health innovation will inspire you to look in your community for libraries and other organizations to partner with to develop and deliver services to improve your community's health – and when you do, please tell us about it!