When we think of public libraries, what comes to mind? A quiet place to find and borrow books, music and films; to use the computer; to tutor students and meet for discussions; to spend storytime with children; to pick up tax forms and fax documents; or simply to find a space to sit and relax. As a free gathering place, public libraries have been part of a city’s crucial nexus that binds communities together. It also happens to be the perfect place for promoting a culture of health.

If healthy lifestyle programs can be implemented at schools, clubs, and hospitals, then public libraries can be part of that health and wellness movement as well. As resource hubs for health, public libraries have also expanded such community-wide services with innovative programming and partnerships with other organizations, foundations, and dedicated community members. There are healthy cooking demonstrations, yoga and exercise classes, presentations on health, and bike borrowing, to name a few.

The Multi-User Blood Pressure Monitor at the Pleasants County Public Library. Photo courtesy of the Pleasants County Public Library.

“Public libraries are vital to communities,” said Mary Hooper, Director of the Pleasants County Public Library in St. Marys, WV. “Libraries are information hubs. (They) provide reliable and accurate information regarding health information and education. (They) are able to promote healthy living through books, websites, and programming.”

This past spring, the Sisters Health Foundation awarded the Pleasants County Public Library a $3,200 grant for the purchase of a Multi-User Blood Pressure Monitor. “The Pleasants County Public Library strives to promote a healthy, active, and supportive community,” Ms. Hooper continued. “To support our community, we wanted to offer a service that was not readily available to our patrons.”

The ability for anyone to walk into a library and measure his or her own blood pressure (BP) on a regular basis encourages people to be more cognizant of their health.“It provides users with a printed copy of their results that they may keep to track their numbers between doctor visits,” explained Ms. Hooper.

Partnering with the Athens City-County Health Department (ACCHD), the Athens County Public Libraries have implemented blood pressure monitors in three of the seven branches. With its vision to address social determinants of health by preventing chronic diseases, the ACCHD initiated a blood pressure monitor lending program in 2016. “By increasing access to blood pressure monitoring equipment, we are empowering individuals to take control of their own health,” said Josh Scakacs, Director of Community Health Worker Development at the ACCHD.

Poster promoting BP monitors available for use at the Athens County Public Libraries. Photo courtesy of the Athens County Public Libraries.

The Sisters Health Foundation awarded the ACCHD $7,000 to purchase these home monitors in order to provide the necessary health education and service to people diagnosed with prediabetes or uncontrolled hypertension. The department’s Community Health Workers (CHW) assisted individuals with measuring their BP and answered any health-related questions. CHWs are trained community members who bridge the gap between healthcare and the community by helping individuals and families navigate and access community services.

“Individuals with high blood pressure are encouraged to make lifestyle changes such as changes in diet and exercise to help manage their condition,” said Mr. Scakacs. “Research has shown the regularly monitoring blood pressuring can help improve your numbers. The ACCHD’s partnership with the Athens County Public Libraries also includes a program called  “What the Health is Going on Here?”, which ends in July. These are tabling events at three branches in which Community Health Workers talk about and answer any questions on health.

The Athens City-County Health Department tabling at the Athens Public Library. Photo courtesy of John Halley of the Athens Messenger.

Amy Drayer, Branch Manager of the Nelsonville Public Library, believes that having a BP monitor available gives people the chance to perform a “mini health screen.” She stated that blood pressure is often not prominent in people’s minds. “Having a cuff available at a library as opposed to a medical facility is a nice way to remind the public to be vigilant of their own health – daily – and gives the public the opportunity to check their own BP at will.”

Ms. Drayer sees the benefits of the BP monitor and other health-related offerings at public libraries, especially in a rural community like Nelsonville. “(We) see many low-income families and children. The staff know many of our regular community people by name and often have opportunities to talk to them and listen to them in a non medical capacity. It gives the library a unique space to connect people with the resources they need in a very unobtrusive way.”

At the Athens County Public Libraries in southeast Ohio, yoga and stretching classes which are led by various teachers from the community are held at the Albany (Wells), Athens and Nelsonville branches on a weekly or biweekly basis.

“The vibe is always so positive and everyone seems very happy to be there (and to) have yoga as an option in their community away from Athens, where there is lots of yoga,” said Erin Pfahler, a local yoga teacher who regularly teaches at the Albany branch, among other places.  She sees that this opportunity to practice yoga gives participants the space to develop a sense of mindfulness and a different way to move the body.

Yoga for People 50 and Up at Athens Public Library. Photo courtesy of Athens County Public Libraries.

Ms. Pfahler understands the unique role public libraries play in cultivating a healthy community. “Presenting the programs in an appealing and fun way can draw in people who may not be interested in seeking out health based programs,” she continued. “Libraries seem to be a place where people come together, which often promotes being healthier, especially because it is a setting outside of a space where alcohol or drugs can be involved.”

The Athens County Public Libraries’ Communications Officer Becca Lachman weighed in on the role public libraries play on a larger scale: “Libraries are seen as a safe and inviting place in the U.S., and since people are already visiting their local branch–even in rural villages where the library is the community center–it just makes sense to invite patrons into discussions and activities related to health and wellness, too.”

Lachman asserts that active participation of the public through health programs and events add a dynamic dimension to providing information, which is the primary job of libraries. “If we can do that through teaching people how to tune up their bikes, hosting family support groups for those whose loved ones are affected by the opioid crisis, new outside water fountains, health-related Q&A stations, and cancer-fighting cooking workshops, then more people are truly engaged.”

Made possible by the support from the OhioHealth O’Bleness Foundation and Creating Healthy Communities (the Athens City-County Health Department and the Ohio Department of Health), the Book-a-Bike lending program has offered Athens County library patrons the use of 15-inch and 19-inch bikes for a maximum of three hours per day per patron. Available at five of the seven Athens County branches, bicycles include adult-sized bikes, cargo trikes, a recumbent and a hand trike. This program, which former Assistant Director James Hill and former Communications Officer Jenaye Hill instituted five years ago, has been such a popular program that the Athens libraries receive calls yearly from other local and out-of-state library systems about the details of the program.

Trike available for check out at the Nelsonville Public Library. Photo courtesy of the Athens County Public Libraries.

“We are seeing adults use bikes who hadn’t ridden them for years.  We are seeing women from countries learning to ride for the first time as adults, and we are seeing international people really enjoying the program in general,” said Todd Bastin, a librarian from the Athens branch. “There are people who check out bikes and make it a regular practice, like a physical regime.  We have others who enjoy them on weekends.” Though an individual must be a patron to borrow the bicycles, this requirement can encourage new library membership, which increases the likelihood of engagement with more healthy lifestyle activities that are offered for free.

In fact, Athens County is not alone in a bike lending program. A similar program has been running at Middleport and Pomeroy public libraries in Meigs County, thanks to the generosity of the Meigs County Health Department and grants from the Ohio Department of Health’s Creating Healthy Communities and Marshall University’s Together on Diabetes. Bike fixing stations and bike-related activities can be found in the Albany Public Library in New York and the Oakland Public Library in California.

As more public libraries provide different avenues toward better health for their communities, health programs will continue to grow and be replicated. We at the Foundation hope that the blood pressure monitor program inspires other public facilities to create or expand programming and continue to march forward toward a culture of health.