Surprising place to get healthy: at the library

health at the library screen shot

Healthy Library Initiative home page screen shot

As the Affordable Care Act’s flaws become more apparent and politicians bicker over how, or whether, to fix it, where can we look for real leadership on health? At the library!

The library’s role in health shouldn’t be surprising. Libraries have long dedicated themselves to educating the public about many critical issues.

They have long provided the poor with services they can get nowhere else. They have long sought innovative ways to expand their influence.

Here are four  health initiatives I have recently learned about.


The Free Library of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania have entered a partnership called Healthy Library Initiative. A research team from the university interviewed staff and patrons at the library’s 54 locations to assess needs and find what library programs already addressed them.

The library offers programs aimed at improving social factors that directly or indirectly have to do with health. These include

  • nutrition
  • housing
  • literacy
  • job training
  • youth leadership
  • support for the elderly

People participating in these programs accounted for half a million in-person visits to library branches in 2015.

The interviews showed that both library staff and the public recognized that people with the greatest health needs included immigrants, the homeless, the mentally ill, substance abusers, and families suffering trauma.

Librarians were already spending significant time helping patrons find treatment centers. The Healthy Library Initiative can only help them offer more focused help to people seeking to improve their health at the library.

San Francisco

school garden. health at the library

A school garden, probably larger than the one at the Mission Branch Library

Seven years ago, the Mission Branch Library planted a vegetable garden in its children’s area.

The children had no idea what to do with this unfamiliar food. Many lived in single room occupancy units with nothing but a hot plate to cook with.

Across the Bay, a middle school in Berkeley started an Edible Schoolyard program complete with its own organic garden.

There children learned such basics as how to peel a carrot.  The teacher developed a mobile kitchen called a Charlie Cart for the purpose.

Lia Hillman, children’s librarian at the Mission Branch and a former chef, bought a Charlie Cart and began teaching basic cooking lessons. In January 2016, she began to take the cart to the farmer’s market near the Civic Center once a month for what is called Biblio Bistro.

There she demonstrates simple cooking techniques for vegetables in season and available at the market. She passes out samples, as well as recipes and a list of cookbooks available through the library. In the spring, the program expanded to help people who shop at food pantries. Biblio Bistrto also has classes for children and teenagers.


The Houston Public Library obtained a grant to start its Healthy L.I.F.E. (Literacy Initiative for Everyone) program after reviewing reports on public health in Houston and surrounding Harris County. It takes advantage of libraries’ traditional role of advancing quality of life through literacy.

The reports identified obesity as one of the top two most serious health concerns. The demographic breakdown showed that obesity among youth amounted to 26.8% of Mexican-American boys and 29.2% of black girls.

At the same time, according to literacy reports 20% of the county’s population lacked basic literacy skills. This figure disproportionately affects families with low incomes, the same families with the highest obesity rates. A targeted outreach can therefore help low-income families improve both literacy and health at the library.

Healthy L.I.F.E. offers free health education in conjunction with the Texas Children’s Mobile Clinic. It also offers free nutrition classes that include

  • how to read food labels
  • how to select inexpensive healthy foods
  • how to prepare healthy meals with less sugar, fat, and salt


nurse and patient. health at the libraryThe Austin Public Library responded to a Pew Research Center report that 42% of people nationwide who use library computers search for health-related information.

The same report shows a high proportion of the population that recognizes how well libraries help people find health information.

With that in mind, the library system redoubled its efforts to help patrons improve their health at the library. Its librarians have put together a health information guide, which links to authoritative resources on every health topic they could think of. The library is also beginning to offer health screenings in library branches.

Since 2010 the Urban Libraries Council has recognized innovative library programs all over the US that provide lifelong learning opportunities tailored to the unique needs of their community. Each year it highlights programs in various categories, including health initiatives.

Houston’s L.I.F.E. program took top honors in 2014 and San Francisco’s Biblio Bistro in 2016

This post is not the first time I have mentioned healthcare at the library. Although it is much easier to find information about innovative programs at city libraries, I have no doubt that small town and rural libraries are no less imaginative in serving their communities.

Does your public library have a health initiative? If not, share this post with the library director. It might spark an idea.

Photo credits:
School garden. Some rights reserved by US Dept of Agriculture
Nurse and patient. Some rights reserved by


Surprising place to get healthy: at the library — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Healthy. And not Surprising. | A Life in Libraries

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