Improving the Health of Seniors: A Partnership between a Public Library and an Academic Health Sciences Library
by Ruth Smith, David Knight, and Dawn Joines
"It open[ed] my eyes … [I] did not know what was available to me." — Participant Evaluation, Session 2, "Seniors' Health Information on the Internet," March 8, 2005, at Edward E. Brickell Medical Sciences Library, Eastern Virginia Medical School
According to the RUSA Access to Information Committee, "Our mission as librarians is to facilitate access to the greatest possible extent." 1 Offering computers with a connection to the Internet is a vital part of providing information access. To a patron who has never used the Internet before, the experience of trying to find information can be an incomprehensible and frustrating one. Just as access to older resources may require special efforts and training, access to newer resources will require libraries to adapt their services to provide patrons with the knowledge and skills they need. This can include teaching patrons not only how to navigate the Internet, but also where the best places to look for information are. As information becomes more complex, as it frequently will when dealing with topics such as medicine, the patrons' need for training and guidance increases.
Senior citizen patrons of the Newport News Public Library System (NNPLS) had frequently expressed an interest in finding reliable health information sources. The senior citizens had attended the Internet class series held at the Virgil I. Grissom Library of NNPLS. After mastering computer basics, the Internet, and other computer skills, various students requested additional Internet training, particularly in exploring health information. Dawn Joines of NNPLS observed, "When their interest turned to health issues, we knew they were in prickly territory. To get unreliable information about health issues could be disastrous." As Gail Kouame, Margo Harris, and Susan Murray stated in an article in the Winter 2005 issue of Library Trends, "Many health care consumers do not lack for health information, but instead are overwhelmed by it."2
Who better to help navigate the ocean of health information than librarians? With so much interest in researching health topics, a class about finding reliable health information on the Internet was a priority. In March 2005, two colleagues from NNPLS – Senior Librarian J. David Knight and Computer Lab Specialist Dawn Joines — joined forces with Ruth Smith, Outreach Services Coordinator for the Edward E. Brickell Medical Sciences Library of Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS). Together, they created "Seniors' Health Information on the Internet."
The three colleagues decided to hold the series of classes at Grissom Library's computer lab, where patrons were already used to attending morning computer classes once a week. In creating the program, the librarians were able to draw in part on the experience of the Brickell Library's Outreach Initiative, in which EVMS librarians have provided the region's public librarians and the public with free training on how to access health information. In the past five years, 1,000 have attended EVMS classes at Hampton Roads public libraries, senior centers, and health fairs on how to find health information.
For "Senior's Health Information on the Internet," Ruth Smith led the first two classes, and David Knight and Dawn Joines led the third; however, all three librarians assisted patrons with the hands-on portion of the classes and answered questions as they arose during the sessions. By sharing patrons' comments on areas they were most interested in and topics they would like to learn more about, the instructors were able to successfully tailor the series of classes from week to week to better meet the patrons' needs.
The series included three sessions designed to focus on researching health topics using online resources. Attendees gained hands-on experience using reliable website health information. The depth of online information that was available fascinated patrons. Participants learned valuable rules for evaluating websites, including a mnemonic website evaluation device, "Cares for U," which stands for Current, Accurate, Relevant, Evidence-Based, Share with Your Doctor, Free of Bias, Organized, Reliable, and Understandable.
Patrons were very enthusiastic about their introduction to MedlinePlus (http://medlineplus.gov/), the National Library of Medicine's free consumer health website. One patron commented, "Since last week, I have recommended the MedlinePlus website to three people. Plus, I have gotten on it to check on things for myself, which I have never done due to lack of knowledge." The sessions also included an online survey called "How's Your Health?," offered through the Hampton Roads Health Coalition website (http://www.hrhc.org/howsyourhealth/hyh.php); an introduction to the Medical Library Association's recommended websites (http://www.mlanet.org/resources/medspeak/topten.html); an overview of the National Institutes of Health Clinical Trials website (http://clinicaltrials.gov/); and familiarization with medical resources licensed through NNPLS and the Brickell Library.
Outcomes and Benefits
Through "Senior's Health Information on the Internet," the librarians involved gained valuable insight into each other's areas of expertise, and were able to create a successful series of classes that, as one student stated, ensured a "better understanding of health issues." The twenty-one participants learned how to locate, evaluate, and navigate quality health information. In addition, attendees learned that NNPLS and the Brickell Library at EVMS are valuable community resources. Librarians at both systems gained a deeper understanding of the continued need to provide the public with health resource location training, the need to promote collections and services, and how to successfully achieve these goals through teamwork. The popularity of "Seniors' Health Information on the Internet" led to additional classes in June 2005, with the promise of more to come.
Collaborations such as this will continue to be an important part of the future of libraries. Budgets at most academic and public libraries are static or declining, thus limiting services. BioMedNews announced in 2004 that the "rapidly rising journal subscription costs in the scientific-technology publishing world threaten to severely curtail access to the research literature."3 The Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose sixty-four percent from 1986-2002. During the same period, the prices of science, technology, and medical journals increased 227 percent.4 Therefore, while many budgets are at best static, libraries are trying to purchase materials that have more than doubled over a short period of time. Serving their communities under such circumstances is a dire situation. As the baby boomers approach middle age, the demand for current and accurate health and medical information will only increase.5 Pooling resources is one way librarians can continue to meet patron needs.
1. RUSA Access to Information Committee, "Issues in Access to Information: A Bibliography," in Reference and User Services Association [website] July 2004 [cited 10 May 2005]; available from http://www.ala.org/ala/rusa/rusaprotools/issuesinaccess/issuesaccess.htm.
2. Gail Kouame, Margo Harris, and Susan Murray, "Consumer Health Information from Both Sides of the Reference Desk," Library Trends 53.3 (2005): 464-465.
3. Heather Bryan, "PLOS Medicine to Premier Fall 2004," in The Real Diehl: The Online Newsletter of the Bio-Medical, Veterinary Medical, and Wangensteen Historical Libraries [newsletter online] 16 June 2004 [cited 7 June 2005]; available from http://blog.lib.umn.edu/biomednews/archives/2004_06.html.
4. Catherine Candee and John Ober, "Regain Control of Scholarly Communication," in Reshaping Scholarly Communication, University of California Office of Scholarly Communication [website] 2005 [cited 25 April 2005]; available from http://osc.universityofcalifornia.edu/home/regain_control.html.
5. Susannah Fox, "Older Americans and the Internet," in Pew Internet and American Life Project [website] 28 March 2004 [cited 15 April 2005]; available from http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/117/report_display.asp.
Ruth Smith is Outreach Services Coordinator at the Edward E. Brickell Medical Sciences Library, Eastern Virginia Medical School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Knight is Senior Librarian at the Newport News Public Library System. Contact him at email@example.com.
Dawn Joines serves as Computer Lab Specialist for the Newport News Public Library System. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.