Health Literacy and Public Libraries


Published: September 5, 2018 by Dr. Lili Luo

Public libraries are uniquely positioned to play an active role in supporting health literacy enhancement in this nation. They provide a no-cost, convenient way to assist the public in navigating health information resources and fulfilling their health information needs. The Public Library Association (PLA)’s Deputy Director Scott G. Allen acknowledged that health literacy is a key topic for public libraries, as the majority of consumers struggle to make sense of the health information they encounter each day. He emphasized public libraries’ role in promoting health literacy, explaining that “consumers need help understanding what’s relevant to their health, what’s legitimate, and how marketing and sensational headlines might be drawing attention away from valid research findings”.

Health information programs, defined as library programs focusing on health related topics, are an essential way for public libraries to reach out to their user communities, raising awareness of and interest in healthy lifestyle, promoting access to quality health information, and ultimately enhancing health literacy of the citizenry. I recently published a study to examine the health information programs provided by a large urban public library system in the past year. In this study, content analysis was conducted on the announcements of health information programs provided by San Jose Public Library (SJPL) in 2017. SJPL has twenty-four branches, serving the entire city of San Jose. Located at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay Area, San Jose was founded in 1777 as California’s first civilian settlement, and now is the largest city in Northern California.

In the year of 2017, a total of 76 health information programs were offered at SJPL. The most popular topical category was “health knowledge and resources”. More than half of the programs fell under this category, aiming to augment the public’s awareness and knowledge of a wide variety of health-related issues, including healthy lifestyle (healthy eating, drinking, and cooking), holistic and harmonious living, disease prevention and treatment (anxiety disorder, diabetes, heart diseases, mental health, alcoholism, etc.), stress management, and life skills to improve overall well-being (self-defense, self-empowerment, self-esteem, etc.) The second most popular category, surprisingly, was “healthy physical activity”, where the programs provided opportunities for the public to participate in physical activities with health benefits. Such programs covered biking, yoga, Bollywood dance, line dance, dancersize, meditation, music and movement for children, and culturally-themed physical activities such as Mexican Folkloric dance, Aztec dance, and Chinese Five Animal Exercise. Overall, SJPL’s programs serve a wide variety of ethnic and age groups, and librarians also actively collaborate with community partners (e.g. health agencies, hospitals, and credentialed medical experts) in developing and offering the programs.

This study has piqued my interest in further pursuing research and teaching in this area. I already submitted a proposal for a new course to provide an introduction the various way that public libraries can contribute to the health literacy movement, including health-focused collection development, reference and information services, programming and outreach. Hopefully enough of our students will be interested!


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