When most people think of health and wellness, chances are the public library is not the first thing that comes to mind. However, over the past few years, public libraries have been playing an increasing role in supporting the physical, mental and social wellness needs of their communities in a variety of ways. Whether it’s hiring social workers or nurses as members of the library staff, or hosting health-themed and movement-based programs. These libraries are not aiming to replace more traditional venues for medical care or fitness but to work with local and regional partners to ensure the wellbeing of their communities.

Peer Navigators Program

One innovative program can be found at the Denver Public Library, which not only has a social work team on their staff but also provides a peer navigator program for patrons experiencing homelessness, addiction, or other difficulties that may require interaction with the social services resources of the city.

Peer navigators are individuals with “lived experiences,” meaning they have dealt with homelessness in the past or are now stable in their own recovery from substance abuse. This makes them uniquely qualified to help other patrons with these challenges.

Peer navigators “provide referrals to resources such as housing, mental health and/or substance abuse services”. They also lead discussion groups with members of vulnerable populations to increase the support that these patrons receive.

To learn more about this program through the experience of one of the peer navigators, I highly recommend this 10-minute video produced by Great Big Story.

Sensory Strategy Space

Another initiative meant to promote the wellbeing of special populations is the new Sensory Strategy Space at the Louisville Public Library in Ohio. Dedicated to those in the special needs community with sensory challenges, this space is the first of its kind to be offered in a U.S. library building free of charge to patrons.

This program is made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded by the State Library of Ohio. Sensory Strategy Space not only offers a sensory-friendly space for those with special needs, but will offer programs for all ages.

It includes Teen Relaxation Sessions, Adult Chair Yoga, Sensory Storytimes, as well as opportunities for sensory exploration and play.

Getting Physical in Libraries

Let’s Move in Libraries is a project focused on the physical, mental and social benefits of being active and the ways libraries can assist in individual and community fitness goals.

The initiative provides program ideas and resources for public libraries looking to begin movement-based programs. This includes music and movement times for children, running and walking clubs, chair-based exercise, yoga, gardening, and more.

Let’s Move in Libraries also shares inspirational stories of ways in which their library partners are supporting community physical literacy. For example, the Woodford County Library in Kentucky has recently expanded their movement-based program offerings from indoors to outside the building by offering outdoor Tai Chi at once branch and a Trail Walkers group at another.

Why Have Health and Fitness in Libraries?

You may be asking yourself why libraries are getting involved in areas that may seem more appropriately handled by medical or fitness professionals.

Certainly, libraries are not trying to take over the responsibility of community health from healthcare providers. But libraries are one of the few indoor spaces in society that are free and open to everyone, hosting more than 1.39 billion visits per year.

It makes sense that libraries, which are trusted institutions that specialize in meeting community needs, would be involved as local partners in health and wellness promotion. When health and wellness needs are not being met elsewhere, public libraries have shown themselves as ready, willing, and able to rise to the challenge.