Public Libraries - The unsung heroes of public health

Did you know that public libraries play a vital role in promoting public health and supporting vulnerable communities? Well it’s true, they offer a wealth of resources, services, and programs that contribute to the well-being of individuals and communities alike. For example, the National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus provides accurate and reliable health information to the public. From providing access to health information and resources to caring for the homeless, public libraries are unsung heroes in public health and often overlooked when it comes to direct public health funding or recognition.

First of all, libraries provide access to health information and resources, empowering individuals to make informed decisions about their health. They offer technology and digital health resources, bridging the digital divide and connecting patrons to essential health services. They also host community health programs and workshops, bringing communities together to support one another. 

By now, most of us have probably received free COVID testing kits, masks or other supplies from a local public library. So, it should come as no surprise that during the 2024 solar eclipse, libraries across the United States distributed solar eclipse glasses, hosted viewing parties, and fostered a sense of shared wonder and community. Through partnerships with organizations like the Space Science Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, STAR Library Network ensured that everyone, regardless of income or social status, could experience the awe-inspiring event safely and equally. In fact, they distributed 5 million solar eclipse glasses to over 10,000 public libraries – saving a lot of retinas from being damaged by a lack of protection or fraudulent eclipse glasses.

Libraries are also champions of the homeless.  Since joining the Street Medicine Institute and endeavoring on our NOSH protocol, we at PathCheck Foundation have learned first hand working with street medicine teams throughout the country about how libraries provide safe spaces and essential services to people experiencing homelessness, offering a respite from the streets during inclement weather while also supporting basic needs. Some libraries even offer medical delivery services for those without a stable mailing address. For instance, The Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) has partnered with local libraries to deliver healthcare services directly to homeless individuals. Other libraries offer specialized resources and programs, acknowledging the complexities of homelessness and working to restore dignity and stability. The San Francisco Public Library's Homeless Services Team provides access to showers, laundry facilities, and even pet care, while the Dallas Public Library's Homeless Engagement Initiative offers job training, housing assistance, and mental health services.

By providing essential services, addressing specific needs, and promoting inclusivity, libraries have become beacons of hope and resilience for the most vulnerable among us;  and therefore all of us. As we look to the future, we hope that libraries are properly recognized and celebrated for the vital role they play in our communities, as they continue to make knowledge, resources, and wonder accessible to all.  Be sure to thank a librarian for their service!