Julie Lepore noticed that many of her patrons were feeling isolated following COVID-19 exposures, positive tests, or caring for sick family members.
“We’re a fairly tight-knit, smaller community, so we get to know our patrons very well and we hear a lot of different challenges that they’re facing in their everyday lives,” says Lepore, director of North Scituate (R.I.) Public Library (NSPL).
She and library staffers began searching for ways to address pandemic recovery with a focus on health and wellness for their community of roughly 5,400 residents.
With a $6,000 grant through the state’s Office of Library and Information Services, NSPL combined programming with health-based kits that patrons could check out, Lepore explains.
“Hopefully, some of our kits can ease a bit of that [pandemic-related] discomfort,” Lepore says.
In early 2022, a small group of NSPL staff—with input from community health experts—assembled 15 different kits for adults and children. Placed in colorful totes, the kits focus on a range of health issues, including dementia, joint health, and mobility, and healthy practices like yoga and meditation. Equipment in NSPL’s medical care kit includes a blood pressure monitor, pulse oximeter—which measures blood oxygen levels—and infrared thermometer.
Libraries like NSPL, often with guidance from local medical providers or agencies, have begun circulating health kits for patrons. The goal of these kits, which often include medical devices and other items addressing various aspects of physical and mental health, is to equip patrons with needed tools and information.
“It’s a way for patrons to try out different [devices] without having to purchase them first,” Lepore says. For example, blood pressure monitors can range from $40 to $200, and many pulse oximeters can cost $15 or more.
Improving community health and wellness
Nearly half of American adults have hypertension, the medical term for high blood pressure, and only one in four of those have their condition under control, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Having high blood pressure poses a risk for heart attack and stroke.
As a way of responding to this nationwide health epidemic, Racine Public Library (RPL) in southeastern Wisconsin began offering kits last June that include a blood pressure monitor and information about community resources.
We [are always] trying to think of ways we can offer these resources when there are so many people who can’t afford health care.—Ashley Cedeño, social worker at Racine (Wis.) Public Library
RPL was one of several Wisconsin libraries approached by a local chapter of the American Heart Association to partner on blood pressure kits. In collaboration, RPL created five kits, including one in Spanish, to help address the county’s comorbidity rates. Racine County is among the least healthy counties in the state, according to recent data collected from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
RPL’s social worker Ashley Cedeño says adoption of the kits has been slow, but staff members hope checkouts will increase as more patrons learn of their availability. Staff has promoted them on their website, in local media, and at a local health fair.
The long-term goal, Cedeño says, is to empower patrons and improve their community’s well-being.
Local nurses in training also regularly come to the library from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to perform basic health screenings, including checking vision, blood sugar, weight, and blood pressure.
“A library is no longer just a book repository; we are a hub,” Cedeño says. “We [are always] trying to think of ways we can offer these resources when there are so many people who can’t afford health care.”
‘We’re here for them’
At Pickens County Library System (PCLS) in northwestern South Carolina, Margaret Holder, manager of the Village Library branch, was looking for a way to address specific health concerns in her community.
“Different things I would see made me think: ‘How can we get information to our patrons?’” Holder says, referring to news stories about the opioid crisis or reference questions about health issues like diabetes, for example.
The library applied for a grant in October 2021 from the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine (NLM) and was awarded $5,000 to create medical wellness kits. PCLS’s kits focus on issues like diabetes, blood pressure, weight management, and substance use disorders, with some including medical tracking devices, such as a digital BMI monitor and pedometer. All include envelopes of resources for patrons to keep. PCLS also has several kits for kids on the human body and teen health.
Clear bags visibly display the contents of the kits and are available for checkout for four weeks. To help introduce the kits, NLM hosted several library events with a local nutritionist. The project also promotes NLM’s MedlinePlus database, a clearinghouse for recipes and other health information for the general public.
“[The kits are] something that will need to be monitored for relevance,” says Holder, who plans to track items to see if they need updating or replacement.
Some libraries offering these kits have emphasized that devices like blood pressure monitors do not substitute professional medical care. They note that blood pressure kits are not for diagnostic or emergency use and that library staff cannot provide medical advice.
Staffers may have a difficult time cataloging these kits, because each contains several items. Additionally, popularizing the kits among patrons and training employees to restock the kits’ free resources after they’re returned to the library may present challenges. But staffers offering these kits, including NSPL’s Lepore, say that making health devices and information accessible to their users is worth the effort.
Says Lepore: “We’re trying to give the community one giant hug and let everyone know we’re here for them.”