If I were to go out onto the streets today and ask passers-by where they go for support and information on their health I'm sure I'd get many of the same answers: the GP, the walk in centre, the infamous Dr Google. They might not, however, say the library; they are not, for many people, synonymous with health and wellbeing, but they should be.
Earlier this week I listened to the story of a mother and carer who spoke about the journey she has been on since her son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis in his first year of life. She spoke of being filled with the fear, confusion and panic that came with not having access to any up to date and trusted information about her son's condition. I then heard another story of a woman living with 19 long term health conditions, who explained that every time she attempted to use the internet to search for health information, she was "scared to death within 20 minutes."
A recent survey revealed that people are almost as likely to use search engines to access health advice as they are to visit their GP. With the obvious danger of misinformation on the internet, libraries' age old dedication to providing accurate information and signposting to other sources of help allows them to be a place that people intuitively trust. They are therefore the perfect community setting for quality-assured health information and advice.
Given this unique position, what do libraries already offer to support health and wellbeing? A whole lot more than you think.
The public library health offer is a commitment from public libraries to contribute to the health and wellbeing of their communities. It includes high quality health information, public health promotions, signposting to local health and social care services, and creative activity to support wellbeing. Libraries across the country run services from dementia cafes to children's dentistry check-ups in quiet times.
Central to the Universal Health Offer is the very popular Reading Well Books on Prescription scheme, which we have developed in partnership with the Society of Chief Librarians. Reading Well develops book lists of quality-assured health information which is endorsed by health professionals and people with lived experience. Having already reached over 635,000 people solely through public library loans, this scheme in itself is proof that we should all see the library as the place to go for health information.
From this month, a new Reading Well book list is available in libraries across England for people with long term conditions and their carers. Based on prevalence and need, the list covers common conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, alongside symptoms such as fatigue and sleep problems. The books will be available, for free, from the public library to support over 26 million people in England living with a long term condition.
At the launch of the scheme this month, the mother and carer I mentioned earlier explained that seeing the books in public libraries would be a great leveller and comfort to anyone coping with a long term condition.
"One of the biggest benefits of Reading Well is that it brings their needs out into the open, it makes it OK to have a long term condition and it allows them to access information to help them manage those conditions - that these free books are now openly available to people with long term conditions and their carers shows that we are part of the community, and it sends a very strong message that we are valued."