Addressing the Opioid Epidemic

Public libraries are crafting harm reduction responses with community partners

June 25, 2019

From left to right: Marion Rorke, Sharon Streams, Lynn Connaway
From left to right: Marion Rorke, Sharon Streams, Lynn Connaway

Marion Rorke, substance use resource coordinator with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, got stuck at the airport this weekend. “I got to chatting with the woman sitting next to me, and she said she was so thankful [for what I do] because her daughter was one of the people who had her overdose reversed in the Denver Public Library,” she said, visibly emotional. The room gasped.

“Questions are being raised about what is the role of libraries in this epidemic,” said Sharon Streams, director of OCLC’s WebJunction, at the outset of “Public Libraries Respond to the Opioid Crisis with Their Communities,” a June 24 session at the American Library Association’s 2019 Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. More than 130 people die in the US every day from opioid overdoses—and the figure is rising.

“One [public library] community partner said, ‘Obviously, our biggest challenge is that people keep dying and we can’t work fast enough,’” Streams said.

OCLC, in partnership with the Public Library Association and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, is studying public library response to the problem. “Libraries are still overlooked when it comes to citywide responses,” Streams said. But of those tackling the problem head-on, she commented, “[They] need support and capacity in order to do anything,”noting that community partnerships can be used to solve other crises going forward.

Streams said the goal of OCLC’s research is to collect and share knowledge and resources, raise awareness among other sectors, and address siloed approaches to the opioid epidemic. One of the organization’s project activities has been conducting case studies at public libraries in Everett, Washington; Salt Lake County, Utah; New Orleans; Peoria, Illinois; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Blount County, Tennessee; Twinsburg, Ohio; and Barrington, Rhode Island.

Lynn Connaway, director of library trends and user research at OCLC, said that before interviewing people in these communities, her organization pretested the protocols with Denver Public Library (DPL), a leader in opioid response, to make sure they were asking the right questions, talking to the appropriate people, and reviewing the right documents. “We did make some revisions based on their feedback,” she said.

“We have had tremendous support from our city,” said Michelle Jeske, city librarian at DPL. The system has four licensed social workers. In addition, DPL staffs six peer navigators who themselves have a variety of experiences ranging from opioid addiction and recovery to leaving abusive relationships to applying for social-service benefits to treating mental health issues.

“That’s essentially what a peer navigator is—someone who has lived experience,” Jeske said. Those experiencing opioid addiction see peer navigators as friends, people to vent to, and symbols of hope. “They’re helping us with referrals,” Jeske said. “Some of what that looks like is warm handoffs. It’s more than just ‘go that way.’”

DPL, like an increasing number of public libraries, trains volunteers to administer naloxone to counteract an opioid overdose. Jeske says that more than 500 people have volunteered to dispense the drug.

“All of our overdoses to date have only happened at our Central building,” Jeske said, which has a large floor plan and security staff. “We know we’ve saved about 30 lives using naloxone over three years.”

Some of the other public libraries studied are using different tactics for harm reduction. For instance, Salt Lake County Library System has launched a public awareness campaign on opioids. Greeting patrons at the main library’s entrance is a display of 7,000 paper pill bottles hanging from the ceiling to represent the 7,000 opioid prescriptions that are filled every day in the state of Utah.

At New Orleans Public Library, bystander training is offered to help reduce the stigma of drug overdose. And in Blount County (Tenn.) Public Library, recovery court participants attend special life-skills training sessions to aid in recovery.

When asked if patrons have pushed back on their decision to dispense naloxone, Jeske answered: “Most people absolutely understand why we’re doing this. We totally believe in the public part of our name.”


Journalist and author Mo Rocca speaks at the Closing Session at the ALA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., on June 25.

The Onus of Obituary

Journalist and entertainer Mo Rocca resurrects forgotten lives and talks about the reassuring nature of history

Perfectly Mariana Atencio

The Peabody Award-winning reporter and author speaks on authenticity and the power of storytelling