Public libraries improving community wellbeing

Written by: Sara Redmond, Assistant Director, the ALLIANCE

Published: 14/04/2020

Sara reflects on the ALLIANCE's role to demonstrate the important contribution our public libraries make to our population’s health.

Scotland’s approach to self management has, for over a decade, been an example of the holistic understanding of health and wellbeing that underpins much of Scotland’s policy context.  This understanding takes into account the wider social determinants of health and wellbeing that lead to health inequalities, places an emphasis on working together with the individual in ways that might best be described as co-production, and recognises the cross sector approach needed to implement the policy.

The recently published research Health on the Shelf (this link will take you away from our website), commissioned by the Scottish Library and Information Council, is an important reminder of the role public libraries continue to play in our health and wellbeing – as community spaces that foster connections, helping to support people’s access information increasingly within the digital space and deliver a diverse array of health and wellbeing services.

“As well as being repositories of knowledge and literature, libraries are accessible safe spaces that are essential to people’s wellbeing and can play a central part in the happy, healthy lives of people of all ages. The library network encourages reading among children and adults, promotes health and wellbeing and offers creative sanctuary to community members and refugees.”

The research found that 45% of respondents had used a public library in the last three years, and that just under half a million people in Scotland (489,429) had used one for a health and wellbeing reason.  Nevertheless, it also identified that for a myriad of reasons – not least capacity and funding challenges – there is a lack of awareness about the health and wellbeing offer from our public libraries.

Libraries have always delivered an important public service with a social justice underpinning by ensuring equitable access to knowledge and information.  The public health approach being taken just now in the context of the current pandemic has shone a light on the need for people and services to work together to keep society functioning as well as to help limit the spread of the virus.

It has also highlighted how important social connectedness and access to information in the right format are to our sense of wellbeing and safety – central roles played by our libraries for many in our society.

Many of our members have already been bringing to light the varying risks and concerns resulting from the social distancing measures which have the potential to increase health inequalities and sweep even more people into poverty in the coming months – both as a consequence of the measures and service adjustments being made by many frontline services and of digital exclusion.  With an overlap between people who are digitally excluded and people with higher health inequalities, this is an important agenda which has particular relevance to public libraries given their contribution towards both digital inclusion and health and wellbeing

It is essential that every step is taken to prevent this from happening. More than ever, we are tasked with designing responses by looking to see the world as others see it. Libraries have an important role to play in shaping these responses and the research highlights that there is considerable scope to improve the digital health and wellbeing ‘offer’. Both at this time and as we emerge from this public health emergency, we can learn a lot from the value placed by many people on the open relaxed spaces that libraries offer in our communities.  It is essential that we continue to raise awareness of the range of current activities and services available locally, along with more links to trusted quality health information.

The ALLIANCE welcomes this research and the recommendations it outlines. Through the new collaborative cross-sectoral strategic action plan with Scottish Government and SLIC, the ALLIANCE will continue to work to align and integrate the public library contribution to health and care policy priorities.


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