Exercise Your Resources

Public libraries partner with academic institutions for health and wellness programming

May 1, 2019

Noah Lenstra

The United States has more than 4,300 colleges and universities. More likely than not, a college or university is close to you—and partnering with them is a great way to bring high-quality health and wellness programming to your public library.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, for instance, hosts Connections4Health, a program in which college student volunteers refer patrons to health resources, including those that address food insecurity, transportation, housing, and immigration concerns.

In Ithaca, New York, Tompkins County Public Library teams up with Cornell University and Ithaca College for Ballet and Books, in which college students are paired with local youth for physical activities, reading, and one-on-one mentoring.

Twin Falls (Idaho) Public Library partnered with the College of Southern Idaho’s volleyball team for Active Kids, an initiative designed to get elementary school students moving.

And Phoenix Public Library has joined with Arizona State University’s Obesity Solutions and the Mayo Clinic to put on FitPHX Energy Zones, a program in which university students engage middle school students on such topics as fitness, nutrition, portion size, body image, and stigma.

The range of possibilities when partnering with higher-education institutions is vast, but one of the biggest hurdles is figuring out where to start.

Thankfully, some institutions are trying to make the process simpler. Here at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where I work, we have the Collaboratory (collaboratory.unc.edu), a publicly searchable online database that shares information about what faculty members are working on so that off-campus entities can identify appropriate partners. The Collaboratory is also available at six campuses of Indiana University, University of San Diego, and a handful of other schools. Hopefully it will be more broadly used in the coming years.

Collaborations work best when they play to the respective partners’ strengths and interests.

Your local college or university may not have the Collaboratory, but it might have an office of public or community engagement. If not, you could reach out to your local academic librarian for help. Academic librarians typically have a deep understanding of their institutions and should be able to direct you to units and individuals on campus who may make excellent partners.

Further, if you’re lucky enough to have a health sciences academic librarian nearby, they may be interested in working with you directly, which is exactly how St. Louis Public Library and librarians from Washington University School of Medicine started collaborating on health programming for the public.

Other common partners may include:

  • health departments, which may have different names, from kinesiology to public health to gerontology to nursing to medicine
  • sports teams and athletics departments
  • university hospitals
  • education departments, especially early education
  • agriculture extension units

Don’t rule out other unexpected partners. For instance, ASU’s Obesity Solutions represents the type of interdisciplinary units that are becoming more common at institutions across the country.

And finally, don’t forget about LIS departments. As more courses are offered online, you may discover that LIS students living nearby may be excited to work with you to develop and deliver health and wellness programming as a practicum or internship.

Collaborations work best when they play to the respective partners’ strengths and interests. Connections4Health and FitPHX Energy Zones work so well because college students view engaging the public around health matters as invaluable preprofessional experience. Additionally, the structure of these initiatives allows libraries to count on steady streams of trained students ready and enthusiastic to make a difference.

Whatever the strengths and interests of your library and community, give collaboration a try—a local institution can probably help.


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