Public libraries are free and accessible to all and are centers of community engagement and education, making them logical choices as partners for improving population health. Library staff members routinely assist patrons with unmet health and social needs.
We used a 100-question, self-administered web survey sent to all library directors listed in the Pennsylvania Library Association database (N = 621), to investigate staff interactions with library patrons to address social determinants of health. We conducted statistical comparisons of quantitative responses and a content analysis of open-ended responses.
Respondents (N = 262) reported frequently interacting with patrons around health and social concerns — well beyond those related to literacy and education — including help with employment (94%), nutrition (70%), exercise (66%), and social welfare benefits (51%). Acute emergencies were not uncommon in Pennsylvania’s public libraries, with nearly 12% of respondents having witnessed a drug overdose at the library in the past year. Most respondents felt that their professional training left them inadequately prepared to assist patrons with health and social issues. Although at least 40% of respondents offered some health programming at their library branch, their offerings did not meet the high level of need reflected in common patron inquiries.