My family loves our local library. Life with a toddler necessitates finding exciting and enriching activities to fill the daily schedule. Luckily, we live just over a mile away from the Smiley Branch of the Denver Public Library in northwest Denver. Every week we can find a new, fun activity for Oliver, whether it’s a free children’s concert, story time, borrowing a new toy from the toy library, or just simply checking out a few new books to read.
As I’ve traveled around the state, I’ve noticed a similar trend. In Colorado communities, both large and small, local library systems are loved by their local families and residents. When I need a quiet place to work or get access to the internet when I’m on the road for work, a local library is almost always available and even more dependable than the ubiquitous coffee shop.
In 65% of communities across the country, public libraries are the only provider of free public access to computers and the internet. Many libraries also provide technology classes to help customers build necessary skills for today’s world, including the Denver Public Library who provided classes to 8,000 individuals in 2013 (PDF).
In today’s increasingly digital world, access to technology is a part of access to health. A 2010 survey showed that almost 40% of library computer users, or roughly 28 million Americans, used this free internet access to search for health information (PDF). As more and more people are shopping for health insurance online through health exchanges and turning to the internet for health advice, libraries in Colorado and across the country are responding in innovative ways to this unique niche.
Leading the charge in this innovation, the public library system in Tucson, Arizona has brought public health nurses on staff to answer health-related questions, perform health screenings, and assist library patrons in care coordination. Not surprisingly, many of the library patrons receiving these health services are underserved and have difficulty finding these services in their community.
In Colorado, the State Library Association has begun having conversations with local libraries about pioneering health initiatives and becoming community health hubs. Anecdotally, many local libraries helped provide frontline navigation assistance to individuals shopping for insurance through Connect for Health Colorado or applying for Medicaid. And libraries in Adams, Eagle, Routt, and Archuleta Counties have partnered with local physicians and community groups to provide wellness classes and health education seminars. Furthermore, Health is Local, our storytelling project that is tracking the impact of health reform, has uncovered a great need for increased health insurance literacy, and libraries and the access to technology they provide have a key opportunity to help fulfill that need.
As libraries evolve and respond to our new technological landscape, it’s clearer than ever that these vital civic institutions have an important role to play in working toward a community health system that works for everyone. Libraries should continue to push to be involved in local collaborative health systems change efforts, and communities should support the important work their library does to make residents healthier in mind and body. For my part, I’ll continue to visit my local library weekly with Oliver, and instill in him the same love for these important community assets that I have.