A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Public Libraries as Public Health Messengers

by Kathy Downing, Digital Library Coordinator, National Public Health Coordination Office, Lamar Soutter Library, University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, on February 12, 2024

Contributed by Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM) Staff

According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Survey, there are over 9,000 public libraries located in the United States and over 96% of Americans live within a public library service area [1]. Public libraries are viewed as trusted members of local communities and sources of quality health information. They are also free and accessible to everyone and often address equity and other disparity issues by creating opportunities for disadvantaged groups.  In addition to providing resources such as books, audiobooks, and computers, libraries also provide educational programming.  Educational programs can range from story hours, literacy classes, and book groups, but they can also focus on providing health information and improving their community’s social and public health. There are many examples of public libraries improving community health by providing direct health care services, quality health information, and linking patrons with social services.

Public Libraries, Health Programing and Working Towards Healthy Populations

The Free Library of Philadelphia has provided multiple community programs through its Healthy Library Initiative, a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania [2].  One of these programs focused on supporting the local immigrant and migrant community and its integration in the local community.   This took the form of traditional library programs such as ESL classes, along with more forward-thinking programs such as multilingual story hours and cooking classes that focused on traditional dishes.  As immigrants participated in library programs, they began to view the library as a trusted resource, and librarians were able to connect them to health resources and services.  They were also able to link them to social services to facilitate communication with lawyers and landlords and apply for citizenship.

Public libraries also provide disaster relief in areas that are prone to natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes and floods.  While public health departments play a crucial role in helping communities prepare for, respond to and recover from natural disasters, libraries also support their communities during natural disasters by providing information, functioning as shelters and command centers, distributing food and other essential supplies along with providing places to recharge electronics and help with emergency-related paperwork [3].

The increase in homelessness across the country and the public library’s position as a public place that is open to all, have expanded their role in addressing mental health and substance use issues that impact their patrons and communities. Public library’s involvement in these public health issues can range from providing health information on alcohol and drug treatment services to more active roles such as employing social workers to link people to social services and training library staff on how to administer Narcan / Naloxone to people overdosing in their bathrooms. According to a study on Substance Use and Overdoses in Public Libraries, “Library staff would likely benefit from more formalized partnerships with public health departments and health care institutions” [4].

Partnering with Public Health Departments

As a trusted source of health information in the communities they serve, public libraries are in a unique position to provide public health information to patrons and help them find trustworthy information through health literacy programs.  Today, we are seeing an increase in partnerships between public libraries and public health departments.

The Baltimore City Health Department’s Virtual Supermarket Program brought the health department, a local grocery store, and the library together so that library patrons can order groceries online and pick them up at the library.  The Chicago Department of Public Health partnered with the Chicago Public Library to implement a Narcan distribution and training program, making Narcan available in branch libraries in Chicago.  The need for these types of partnerships was echoed in a recent survey of public libraries done by the Colorado Area Health Education Center, the Colorado State Library, and the STAR Library Network that showed that 72% of public libraries in Colorado would like to partner with public health departments to improve the health-related programming in their communities.  An increase in partnerships between public health departments and public libraries would benefit both groups and the communities they serve.

Public Health at NNLM

The Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM), a longtime advocate of libraries, has been increasing its focus on public health and expanding its outreach to the public health workforce since 2019. The NNLM provides webinars and classes on public health issues, sponsors funding opportunities for public health-related activities, and publishes multiple NNLM subject guides on public health topics. The NNLM has also partnered with public health associations to provide continuing education credits and professional development for the public health workforce.  These programs can help librarians and others learn more about public health topics and explore public health resources that can be used in your library.

Here is a sample of upcoming webinars:

The NNLM also funds public health projects and organizes subject guides on public health topics.  Subject guides list freely available resources and that can be shared with patrons:


1. Institute of Museum and Library Services. (2020). Public Libraries in the United States: Fiscal Year 2017. Available at https://www.imls.gov/publications/public-libraries-united-states-survey-fiscal-year-2017-volume-1 . Accessed January 29, 2024.

2. Morgan, A. U., Dupuis, R., D’Alonzo, B., Johnson, A., Graves, A., Brooks, K. L., McClintock, A., Klusaritz, H., Bogner, H., Long, J. A., Grande, D., & Cannuscio, C. C. (2016). Beyond Books: Public Libraries as Partners For Population Health. Health affairs (Project Hope)35(11), 2030–2036. https://doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2016.0724

3. Philbin, M. M., Parker, C. M., Flaherty, M. G., & Hirsch, J. S. (2019). Public Libraries: A Community-Level Resource to Advance Population Health. Journal of community health44(1), 192–199. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10900-018-0547-4

4. Feuerstein-Simon, R., Lowenstein, M., Dupuis, R., Dolan, A., Marti, X. L., Harvey, A., Ali, H., Meisel, Z. F., Grande, D. T., Lenstra, N., & Cannuscio, C. C. (2022). Substance Use and Overdose in Public Libraries: Results from a Five-State Survey in the US. Journal of community health47(2), 344–350. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10900-021-01048-2