By Daniel Stein

What comes to mind when you think of public libraries? Do you perceive them as just a source of books or something more? Are they an important component of community life? Most pointedly, can they play a significant role in combatting a public health crisis?

Those were among the questions addressed during April, 3rd, 2020 NIC webinar/discussion, which was titled Call to Action: Public Libraries and the Opioid Crisis. The presenters were Larra Clark, Deputy Director for both the Public Library Association (PLA) and the American Library Association’s (ALA) Public Policy and Advocacy Office; and Kendra Morgan, Senior Program Manager of WebJunction.

Larra and Kendra explained that there are over 17,000 library locations nationwide, providing millions of programs and drawing 1.3 billion visitors each year (though not in 2020, for obvious reasons). Those numbers clearly illustrate that libraries are a highly accessible, trustworthy and extensive resource; most pointedly, they clearly are very well-used.

With that core understanding, OCLC and PLA have worked together on research relating to how public libraries have supported their communities throughout the opioid crisis and how they are also partnering with organizations to support and meet the health needs of their communities. Based on their research, OCLC and PLA have created a Call to Action report to address key question/concerns and to assist libraries in moving forward. The Call to Action focuses on:

  • Exploring community data
  • Community assets and connection with partners
  • Increasing awareness and knowledge of the issues among staff and the community
  • Library staff care
  • Offering community engagements and programming options

Many of the 90-plus participants in last Friday’s NIC conversation were aware of the opioid-related role for libraries, and some shared that they’d provided opioid education presentations and Narcan trainings at their own local libraries. More broadly, participants shared their perspectives on what public libraries meant to them and how they utilized them. While there was a broad range of responses on frequency of usage, everyone had positive things to say, pointing out that public libraries provide: a safe space, a place for community gatherings, research and information, lots of books, and a place for children.

Larra and Kendra also shared the findings from their research, which involved case studies at eight sites. The studied programs and services included opioid public awareness campaigns, training on first aid and administering Naloxone, and providing life skills training for recovering opioid users. All these supports increased community resources and services, developed new partnerships, increased awareness, and positively impacted patrons’ lives; they also provided an opportunity for further learning and next steps.

Larra and Kendra stressed there are specific issues libraries must address so they can continue this work in the future. The stigma around substance use disorder and funding were two primary examples. In their research, Larra and Kendra said many libraries and their partners shared that some communities are concerned about providing substance use disorder programs, and some people who need help are afraid to ask for it. Additional issues, and some questions that arose about them last Friday included:

  • With the variety of programs and services that public libraries are offering, are they considered “essential” during this coronavirus pandemic and forced to remain open?
  • Naloxone is effective, but is library access considered an effective strategy for reaching people who use opioids or is it more effective for reaching family and friends of opioid users?
  • Does raising awareness, which is one of the approaches that libraries utilize, help to ease the stigmatization around opioid use?
  • Can libraries highlight that genetics account for about half a person’s risk of addiction?

NIC is a Community of Networks that strives to bring together individuals and organizations that are working to share information and shape collaborations on issues relating to health and human services. The library associations fit that description to a tee, which is why we invited them to present during one of our regular Friday discussions – and to join NIC’s efforts more broadly.

Please share your thoughts, questions and/or ideas by writing to, by joining in our upcoming webinars, or by participating in one of our initiatives.


Learn more about the resources that our presenters shared during April, 3rd, 2020 webinar.


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