Health Literacy Happens at Miami Public Library

Liz Morris /

Miami Public Library (MPL) serves over 13,000 residents in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, and works to enhance the quality of life in the community by promoting the joy of reading, providing lifelong learning, and facilitating digital inclusion. Providing relevant content and services, including health information, is a part of this mission. Through data-driven program development and strategic partnerships, MPL has established strong health information services to support the health literacy skills of staff and patrons alike.

Marcia Johnson, Director of Miami Public Library (MPL), knew from direct patron engagement that there was a community need for reliable access to health information, and sought additional data to further her own understanding of those needs. She accessed the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings and Roadmaps site, to learn about where her county stands in comparison to other counties and the state of Oklahoma as a whole on key community health factors.

Some of these factors include health behaviors (smoking, physical inactivity), clinical care considerations (percent of community uninsured), social and economic factors (education, violent crime), and physical environment factors (water safety, access to healthy foods, etc.)  MPL has utilized this data, as well as LSTA support provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services through the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, in the establishment of their health literacy services. Oklahoma Department of Libraries has included health literacy as a focus in their literacy resource office, and MPL’s efforts are some of many health literacy services being provided at libraries throughout the state.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Quick Guide to Health Literacy defines health literacy as “…the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” In many communities, a collaborative, cross-sector approach to addressing health literacy may be most appropriate, given the many overlapping dependencies that can influence this ability at an individual or community level. Miami Public Library has partnered with several organizations in their community health literacy efforts, including INTEGRIS Baptist Regional Health Center, Northeastern Tribal Health Systems, and Be Covered Oklahoma.

Currently, Miami Public Library is working to connect staff and patrons with information regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This includes a focus on providing staff with webinar training and resources provided by the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, with an understanding that in a small community library, every staff member spends time at the front desk, and benefits from being equipped to answer patron inquiries regarding government services. Staff members are also being connected to training regarding health information services more broadly, such as effective use of online resources like MedlinePlus.

Miami Public Library (MPL) and Be Covered Oklahoma are also planning community information sessions regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA). There are many reasons this service is critical for Miami community members.

The requirement of the law for individuals and families to enroll in health coverage is in relatively early days of implementation, and there is a fair amount of complex or conflicting information circulating. The federally-designated ACA consumer assistance organizations known as Navigators are widely dispersed in Oklahoma. As such, MPL and Be Covered Oklahoma are working to engage community members early and often to support their familiarity with this complex policy.

In early 2014, Miami Public Library and partners will engage existing library literacy students in health literacy workshops on additional health topics, such as healthy behaviors and effective health communications. These library literacy students are adult patrons with low-level literacy, or English as a second language, who may take newly developed health literacy skills and share them with their peers and families, modeling the multiplying effect that is at the heart of library services.

Marcia Johnson, Director at Miami Public Library, notes that “as part of our mission to enhance the quality of life in our community, we are committed to providing lifelong learning for our residents.  Because health statistics for our community indicate a real need for our residents to learn healthy behaviors, we have made this a priority.” She provided the following suggestions for supporting patron health literacy needs at local libraries:

  • Look to your state library to understand what health literacy priorities or resources already exist that your library may be able in incorporate;

  • Train staff on your library’s health information service priorities and policies to ensure their familiarity with the subject matter;

  • Access and use available data to articulate the need for health literacy supports in your community.

Through building health literacy skills and connecting patrons and staff to the health information they need, when they need it, Miami Public Library is reinforcing the health of their community.

Anybody interested in learning more about health literacy and health information resources for library staff is invited to join WebJunction’s free webinar on this topic on January 22, 2014. Registration details are available here.