Public Libraries: Partners in Health

A phoenix spreads its wings over the skyline of Atlanta

Are you in Atlanta today? If not, you’re missing MLA ’18, a four-day extravaganza of all things related to medical librarianship. Sponsored by the Medical Library Association (MLA), the conference offers training, policy presentations, and career building strategies, plus endless opportunities to network and to reconnect with colleagues and friends.

This year’s conference also offers something special: a symposium dedicated to health information for public librarians. The symposium is designed to help public librarians develop skills in providing consumer health information to enhance health and well-being and to encourage and expand health literacy throughout their communities.

Running concurrently with the final day and a half of the conference, the symposium began this morning and will run through midday tomorrow, when attendees will get to hear two powerful keynotes from Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron, Chief Engagement Officer of the All of Us Research Program at NIH, and Dr. David Satcher, the 16th Surgeon General of the United States and founding director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine.

Funded by grants through the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM), the symposium was organized by MLA in collaboration with the Public Library Association, NNLM’s Greater Midwest Region, and members of the MLA Consumer and Patient Health Information Section.

These kinds of partnerships are invaluable, often making the impossible possible.

NLM’s ongoing partnership with public libraries is one more example. Partnering with public libraries has been an NLM essential for decades. Along with hospital and health sciences libraries, public libraries provide NLM with points of presence around the country. In fact, through the NNLM’s 6,800+ members, NLM reaches into almost every county in the United States.

That reach is powerful. By serving as community centers and information hubs, public libraries provide us with a special pathway to the American public. And with their unique knowledge of their communities, public librarians help us understand how best to serve the people living in those communities.

That is why public libraries play a key role in advancing NIH’s new precision medicine program, All of Us.

This ambitious initiative will recruit one million people—especially those historically underrepresented in biomedical research—into a new kind of scientific discovery effort that engages people in the research process and improves health by taking into account individual differences in biology, environment, and lifestyle. Participants will help researchers make discoveries that may help future generations, and in turn, participants will receive all the data and information collected about themselves, as well as certain study results.

That’s where public libraries step in. Public librarians will work to engage their local communities, raise awareness about and understanding of the program, boost overall health literacy, and help program participants comprehend and interpret their own information.

In turn, NLM will support the librarians, training them to use our resources and providing health information they can share. We will also listen to them to learn about the health concerns of their communities, using those insights to improve our resources and to provide information that is responsive, culturally sensitive, and contextually relevant.

So today, while we activate and celebrate our partnerships with public libraries at the MLA meeting and symposium, we remember and recognize that NLM’s real value comes not from what we do on the NIH campus in Bethesda, but in what information reaches the health lives of people everywhere. Public libraries help make that possible.


By the way, if you can’t be in Atlanta but want to feel like you are, follow the hashtag #mlanet18 on Twitter. And later this month, check the NLM website for recordings of all our theater presentations.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine