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Rural Health Information Hub

Health Literacy Programs in Public Libraries

Libraries are a trusted source of information in many communities. They provide free access to digital and print materials, including a variety of health-related resources. According to the Libraries 2016 report from Pew Research Center, close to half of people surveyed age 16 and older had visited a public library or bookmobile in person over the past year. In rural areas, library use has increased given the additional resources present, such as internet access and up-to-date digital services.

Public libraries have become a common setting for health literacy programs, with librarians being an important partner in implementing health literacy programs. Librarians help improve health literacy by:

  • Providing a variety of health-related resources, including online and print materials
  • Evaluating the readability and understandability of health information and health-related materials
  • Developing new materials tailored to the health literacy needs of the community
  • Showing people how to use and access health-related information and digital resources on computers
  • Giving referrals to other organizations that can help provide health services
  • Distributing information about local health-related events
  • Helping conduct research about health topics requested by community members

Examples of Health Literacy Programs in Public Libraries

  • Public libraries throughout Montana have implemented health-themed programming to educate residents about important health and safety topics, including healthy eating, oral health, aging, benefits of meditation, exercise and healthy eating, and heart health. The Montana Health Literacy Month Toolkit includes health literacy programming with information about implementation, including budget, program description, and other helpful resources, books, and graphics for libraries looking to develop similar programs. Examples of these programs include health-related story times, cooking classes with discussions about ingredients and healthy eating, and yoga and other exercise classes. Librarians and library staff can use the toolkit as an opportunity to promote health literacy resources to community members to improve understanding and access to services.
  • The Oklahoma Department of Libraries and several local public libraries throughout the state are partnering to develop programming that provides residents with resources and opportunities to improve health and well-being. Some local libraries received health literacy grant funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and have created tailored programs based on community needs. For example, the Beaver County Pioneer Library implemented a program called Grow it, Try it, Like it with children where they shared stories and information about healthy eating. The Seminole Public Library implemented a program to promote physical activity in local schools and teach students how to read food nutrition labels.
  • Let's Move in Libraries is an international initiative to get people of all ages and abilities on the path to health, including programs to improve health literacy.

Program Clearinghouse Examples

  • UNC Health Sciences Library received an award through the Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM) to build capacity in the community to improve health literacy.

Implementation Considerations

Libraries can be an essential access point for health information for community members. Since they are open to the public and all resources and services are free, they can be a key site for health literacy programming. Staffing constraints and resource issues may be challenges for implementing programs in rural libraries. Many public libraries in rural areas are housed in small buildings with only 1-2 staff members. In these settings it can be especially important to work with other libraries, community-based organizations, extension offices, and universities to form partnerships to address common goals around improving health literacy.

Programs should consider the need for staff training to ensure everyone is prepared to implement strategies involved in the health literacy intervention. Specifically, librarians may not be trained on health-related topics and may require additional training and attention to learn terminology and methods. Programs can use publicly available resources to deliver staff training and education on these topics.

Resources to Learn More

Bringing Public Health and Public Libraries Together: Collaboration Toolkit
Provides information and resources about the importance of public libraries collaborating with other community organizations to deliver public health services for community members.
Organization(s): Midwestern Public Health Training Center, National Library of Medicine (NLM), Public Library Association (PLA), Prevention Research Centers (PRC)
Date: 5/2021

Harnessing the Power of Public Libraries
Podcast describing how libraries in different communities are partnering with public health organizations to improve health and well-being.
Organization(s): Midwestern Public Health Training Center, National Library of Medicine (NLM), Public Library Association (PLA), Prevention Research Centers (PRC)
Date: 5/2021

Health Happens in Libraries
Repository of resources enabling public library staff to provide community members with health information and the tools to improve local health and well-being.
Organization(s): WebJunction, Institute of Museum and Library Services

Rural Library Sustainability Program
Repository of resources from workshops hosted as part of the Rural Library Sustainability Project, including marketing materials, to help staff members develop programming focused on sustainability efforts.
Organization(s): WebJunction, Rural Library Sustainability Program

Network of the National Library of Medicine Trainings
Lists online and in-person training opportunities supporting professional development and continuing education for librarians and health professionals. Includes previous webinar recordings for individuals to use.
Organization(s): Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM)