How libraries help build bridges to better health

Library leadership team virtual meeting
Clockwise from top left: Executive Director David J. Seleb, Director of Operations Jeremy Andrykowski, Director of Public Services and Programs Lori Pulliam, Director of Human Resources Billy Treece, Director of Social Services & Public Safety Robert Simmons, and Director of Collections and Technology Elizabeth Marszalik. Get in touch with library leadership »

This week, we celebrate both National Library Week (April 4-10) and National Public Health Week (April 5-11).

The American Public Health Association sponsors National Public Health Week every April. The theme this year, during what it calls “the most challenging public health crisis of our lifetimes,” is Building Bridges to Better Health.

National Library Week is sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) and is observed by all kinds of libraries each April. This year, the focus is on how library workers continue to adapt resources and services to meet their users’ needs during these challenging times.

Which made us ask ourselves:

Where and how do libraries and public health intersect?

As a community resource that is truly open to everyone, public libraries are vital pieces of local health infrastructure, serving as community hubs where diverse residents can access not only traditional library resources like books and digital media, but also programming and social services. 

Libraries are safe, trusted entities in their communities and are also often the first point of access for connecting with vulnerable and marginalized individuals who need information and resources but may not know where to look for support.

The past year in particular has demonstrated how vital the library is to our community in so many ways.

Pivoting, putting people & safety first

Throughout the pandemic, we have prioritized putting people and safety first while continuing to serve our community, following clearly defined service levels that depend on local conditions as well as expert guidance. We also have shared information and resources about COVID-19, including updated information about where to get the vaccine locally.

As we reflect on pivots we’ve made and are still making in this pandemic, here are more examples from Oak Park, listed by each day’s public health theme.

Monday: Rebuilding during a pandemic »

“Rebuilding doesn’t mean getting back to where we were before the COVID-19 pandemic – it means having the vision to create a better, more inclusive, more just world through public health.”

There’s a common saying in the library design world—don’t nail anything to the floor, and we really take that to heart!

Because it’s by being flexible that we can keep adapting well to meet evolving community needs. It’s also about staying true to our values and who we are.

  • It’s why we commit to regular social services meetings with partners from Oak Park and River Forest organizations, including the biweekly COVID-19 Oak Park River Forest Social Services Task Force and the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition.
  • Why we immediately expanded remote service and digital library offerings last spring, providing the safest ways to learn, connect, and stay entertained during a public health crisis.
  • And speaking of flexible library design, it’s why we reorganized our collections at the Main Library in response to community use, opening up a much-needed space for future teen engagement in the process.
  • And it’s why we’ve stayed committed to our anti-racism journey—because racism is a public health crisis.

Tuesday: Advancing racial equity »

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted long-standing inequities in health care, income, housing, education and many other factors that influence health and well-being. These inequities are largely driven by racism and bias that are embedded in our systems, institutions, policies and practices.”

Libraries are for everyone. Our vision, to empower every voice in our community, also embraces that philosophy. 

And as your public library, we are committed to dismantling the systems of oppression that have created, and that fuel, racist conditions. We know we have work to do, both as individuals and as a community organization serving all of Oak Park.

  • In a crucial step along our anti-racism journey, the library’s Board of Library Trustees approved our first-ever anti-racism strategic plan in March. Read the approved draft plan »
  • Storytelling is who we are, and it has the power to change us. That’s why we created comprehensive anti-racism resource guides full of materials in which we see ourselves and our lived experiences, and we learn through the eyes of those who have different experiences, around everything from white supremacy to Black joy. Browse the titles in the catalog »
  • With these resources, we launched the Anti-Racism Resource Challenge, a year-long way to share intentional learning experiences with our community.
  • We bring restorative practices to anti-racism, holding anti-racism circles with our community.

Wednesday: Strengthening community »

“Community encompasses every aspect of our lives – it’s where we live, work, learn, play and pray. These make up the social determinants of health, and too many people in the U.S. face community barriers to health and well-being.”

Your library provides social infrastructure, a concept defined by author and social scientist Eric Klinenberg as “physical places and organizations that shape our interaction.”

We couldn’t agree more that freely accessible public space is crucial to the life of a community. That’s been a huge challenge during a pandemic in which we’ve needed to physically stay apart and limit public access to physical library spaces.

Here are some ways we pivoted to continue building community:

  • Like so many, we transitioned our programs to Zoom, along the way opening up access to those who may not have been able to attend programs in person before. As one attendee told us: “I would never wish this pandemic on anyone anywhere, but I’m grateful that it has opened up this virtual event. And I hope that when life goes back to normal, we are still able to utilize this virtual event in addition to the regular group function, so that those of us who can’t get to the library can still benefit from this group.”
  • We facilitate virtual meeting room reservations, so that Oak Park cardholders can now set up and run their own virtual meetings with support from trained library staff.
  • We widened access to mobile WiFi hotspots and devices such as Chromebooks, and made them available for checkout and extended use outside of the library.

Thursday: Galvanizing climate justice »

“Building strong communities makes them more resilient. Communities with greater cohesion have better health outcomes after climate-related disasters. Addressing climate change alongside other inequities, like racial injustice, helps improve the health of communities.”

The library sustains, shares, and respects community resources, including the natural environment. Environmental initiatives include our Main Library Green Roof and more green features integrated throughout the award-winning building.

Further commitments this year include making improvements at the Main Library for indoor air quality and electricity consumption, plus joining a community-wide collaboration to improve butterfly habitats:

  • We’re installing an air ionization system to make the building safer for our staff and community, by reducing the risk of airborne viral transmission in the buildings. And we’re upgrading the lighting to reduce energy consumption, improve efficiency, and take advantage of ComEd incentives to save money.
  • In support of the proclamation to make 2021 The Year of the Butterfly, and to support the Illinois Monarch Project, we have joined with local school groups, congregations, nonprofits, and more to educate residents about some of the dangers that butterflies face, especially monarchs, and how we can take action to help.

Friday: Building COVID-19 resilience »

“The data is clear: when we take action backed by public health science, health outcomes improve. … Moreover, when people’s basic needs are met – when they are safely housed, have enough food to eat, enough money to survive, access to health care and other essentials – they have reduced stress and are more likely to have better physical health as a result.”

As restrictions in our area lessen and more vaccine appointments become available, we are making plans to open one of our branch locations that’s been closed since March 2020. Still, visits to our library spaces will remain different than they did in pre-COVID times. 

We continue to expand home delivery, as well as resource delivery for educators and mobile hotspots by mail. And we continue to support mental health and connect people with community resources they need.

  • Libraries have become de facto health centers for people who don’t have access to any other resources. Our Social Services & Public Safety team continues to connect people with resources, including housing. We also continue to partner with Rush University Medical Center to help people get mental health assessments from licensed clinical psychologists.
  • We offer virtual health & wellness programs for our community.
  • And we continue to collaborate in regular social services meetings with partners from Oak Park and River Forest organizations. Our Director of Social Services & Public Safety Robert Simmons says that with so many new partnerships and collective strategies formed over the past year, he’s never felt so supported in his community work. Learn more about the library’s Social Services »

More ALA & National Library Week events