Public Library Association Launches Program to Deliver Health Info

The new partnership with the National Network of Libraries of Medicine is designed to train librarians to better serve patrons seeking medical guidance.

Responding to the sizable proportion of Americans who hit the library to check out health guidance instead of books, the Public Library Association is partnering with a federal agency to train librarians to better provide consumer-health information.

Earlier this month PLA announced its partnership with the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM), which supports medical libraries for a variety of institutions. PLA Deputy Director Scott G. Allen said the new initiative, called Promoting Healthy Communities, is designed to tailor medical information for librarians serving a general audience. “Public librarians are charged with helping those patrons, but they’re not taught a whole lot in library school about consumer health information or literacy,” he said. “So they sort of have to learn it on the job.”


Research suggests that those librarians have an important role to play. According to a 2010 study, 37 percent of library users, including 57 percent of seniors living in poverty, used public library computers to seek health information. But a 2013 survey of public librarians showed that a third of respondents were unfamiliar with resources that could help patrons with health-related queries.

Public librarians aren’t taught a whole lot in library school about consumer health information.

The PLA-NNLM partnership intends to address that knowledge gap in a variety of ways, including podcasts, webinars, conference sessions, and a dedicated website set to launch later this year. That site will provide information for librarians on what NNLM information is accessible, streamlined versions of that information for a consumer-health audience, and recommendations for how libraries can promote their role as a health info desk.

That streamlining and guidance is essential, Allen said, because much of the data NNLM handles is too high-level in relation to the basic consumer information that public library patrons are seeking. “Not everything [NNLM does] is relevant to a public library, so we’re trying to focus on what they do that can help public libraries,” Allen said.

However, the program addresses a wide range of needs among librarians. Training on the materials can be used by librarians seeking a credential in Consumer Health Information Specialization managed by the Medical Library Association, or the materials can be accessed a la carte based on local needs. “Some public library staff have a lot of experience with this and maybe just want to take some courses on cultural issues in healthcare, or privacy issues, or opioids,” Allen said.

PLA’s parent, the American Library Association, has partnered with NNLM before on projects like a “Health Literacy Toolkit,” which promotes libraries’ role as a repository for accurate health information. But PLA was approached by a regional office of NNLM for the more targeted outreach program. And though Promoting Healthy Communities is designed to officially last through the spring, Allen said it’s hoping to create resources that will last beyond that.

“We’re looking for other sources of support, but we’re trying to do things, such as the website, in ways that we can sustain without a lot of resources,” he said. “Every time we do a webinar in our program, or an article in our journal, it gets archived and we can refer people to it. So we do hope to continue after April.”

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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