Just What the Doctor Ordered: Medical Libraries and Public Libraries Reinforcing Community Health

Liz Morris /

When I think of a medical library, I'm taken back to my undergraduate days studying medical history and ethics. Navigating the labyrinth-like halls of the health sciences building adjacent to the university hospital, I’d make my way to the library and dive in to the worlds of battlefield surgery, sports medicine, and public sanitation policies. What I didn't know then, and am thrilled to know now, are the many ways in which medical libraries and public libraries can work together to provide reliable consumer health information to their communities.

Ruth Smith is the Outreach Services Coordinator for the Edward E. Brickell Medical Sciences Library (Brickell Library) at the Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) in Norfolk, VA. In addition to providing information resources to the school's students, faculty, clinicians and staff, Brickell Library is open to all members of the local Hampton Roads community. While this level of accessibility is somewhat unique to a medical library, Ruth has made it her mission to ensure that other local library institutions benefit from the availability of local consumer health expertise through the Brickell Library.

As the opening of the health care marketplaces associated with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) drew near in the fall of 2013, Ruth anticipated that individuals would look to their public libraries for support. In a recent conversation, Ruth informed me that her previous experience working in a public library informed her decision to take quick action to ensure local public library staff knew how they could prepare and coordinate local resources. As the current co-chair of the Tidewater Area Reference Librarians, Ruth was able to engage the expertise and connections of her library and network to develop and deliver a customized, 30-minute presentation to staff in local public library systems titled EVMS CARES: Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act. This training was designed to instill confidence in library staff responding to patron inquiries regarding the ACA, in a manner that reinforces the deep trust that patrons place in their public libraries.

Maintaining public trust is one of the priorities driving Ruth's approach to librarianship and partnership. Ruth shared with me her perspective that there is an "inherent vulnerability" which patrons may bring to their individual health information requests, including but not limited to those regarding the ACA. The neutrality, confidentiality, and reliability that public library staff can provide in their health information services can be buoyed by the extensive knowledge and resources available in the medical library community. Many of these resources were reviewed in depth during a recent WebJunction webinar presented in partnership with the National Network of Libraries of Medicine and Santa Ana Public Library. Health Information Resources for Library Staff is available as a free archive, and includes an annotated handout for reliable health information resources.

Our collective knowledge of personal and community health has come a long way, to include perspectives from fields as diverse as biology, sociology, economics, and public and environmental health. The breadth of information is extensive, and public libraries and their patrons can obtain reliable access to it through the medical library community.