November 11, 2016

The Philadelphia public library system is joining forces with the University of Pennsylvania to do a great, great thing


There is no conceivable good that will come of this. Things will not improve. But there is a chance that we can mitigate or avoid some of the most horrifying outcomes. At the very least, we can work very hard to take care of each other, in light of the fact that our government is not likely to do so. To be clear, “taking care of” means protecting each other from being kidnapped by the government, or shot by the police in the street or in our homes, or left to die of preventable disease. This is not a “say something nice to a stranger” or “tip generously” type of taking-care.

This is a responsibility we all share, but in the struggle to come we will need leaders. We will need mythic heroes, mighty defenders of justice, torchbearers in the inky black.

Who will answer the call? As always, librarians.

According to a report from News Medicine, researchers at the University of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia public library system (the Free Library of Philadelphia) have found libraries in their city routinely provide essential public health determinants such as job training, literacy tutoring, temporary shelter, and basic health care. This is of course in spite of the fact that hardly any library workers in that system are given institutional support for this kind of work.

This backing is exactly what “The Healthy Library Initiative”—a partnership between UPenn and the public library system—would like to provide. The pilot program would provide training and resources for library staff that will prepare them to “recognize vulnerable patrons, communicate productively with them, and guide these patrons to appropriate community-based services,” and to “integrate evidence-based public health programming in a library setting.”

Philadelphia is one of the poorest large cities in the country, and one of the least healthy, with rates of hypertension, obesity, and diabetes far, far above the national average. In other words, there is a lot of work to do. And libraries, according to this study, are uniquely positioned to do it, if they’re given institutional, financial, and educational backing.

We’ve previously written about the uses and abuses of the term “library,” with the implication being that libraries are places for books and reading, period. But now, as we face the howling void, maybe it’s time to reconsider what exactly a library should be for. Maybe, if we really are facing the end of the Affordable Care Act (which, flawed as it is, has done a tremendous amount to provide healthcare for those who need it most), we should figure out brave new ways to help people not die. And maybe libraries are part of the solution.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.