In 2010, a highly regarded group of physicians, brain scientists, social scientists, and other experts went on record with their expert opinion that public libraries likely promote health. Now, one Maine physician, working with Portland Public Library, has just completed the first-ever direct and broad research on the topic – and proved their instincts were on the right track.
Maine physician Dr. Sam Zager was the driving force behind the Health and Libraries of Public Use Retrospective Study (HeLPURS), the first broad investigation of health and public libraries. The study investigated whether a link between library use and health could be quantifiably established. Dr. Zager’s interest in the intersection of health and public library use grew out of his involvement in library advocacy efforts in Boston several years ago. He noticed that the prior research into health and libraries was sparse and narrowly focused on health literacy. No studies existed to determine the relationship between library use and individuals’ health profiles.
Individuals who used the library moderately were nearly three times more likely to successfully quit smoking
The project results provide evidence that public library use has quantifiable associations with health, particularly in the areas of substance abuse and depression-anxiety disorders. The most dramatic finding is that moderate or higher use of public libraries is associated with tobacco cessation. Individuals who have ever been smokers and who used the library at least moderately – seven or more items checked out per active year – were more than two times more likely to have successfully quit smoking, compared with smokers who used the library less.
“HeLPURS offers the first direct evidence that public libraries could be health-promoting spaces,” Dr. Zager says. “This was out-of-the-box thinking, but now these results beg for further research. The current findings also have important implications when estimating return on investment in public libraries in Maine and across the country.”
Dr. Zager’s sentiments are echoed by PPL Executive Director Steve Podgajny. “What the HeLPURS study doesis to clinically isolate a specific and very important health relationship that public libraries have with individuals and the community as a whole. The study has many ramifications one of which is how public libraries might serve more effectively as a vehicle for public health funding and goals.”
The HeLPURS project allied Dr. Zager with the Library’s Health and Institutional Research Teams, starting in 2012. The study, conducted in Fall 2013, was funded by a generous grant from the Anne Randolph Henry Charitable Foundation. The study recruited participants from adult Maine Medical Center Family Medicine patients. Participants who were also PPL card holders granted permission for the Library to release information on frequency of their library use for correlation by Dr. Zager and his colleagues with their medical histories. Throughout the study, all privacy laws and human research ethics protocols as well as PPL privacy policies were strictly observed, and no personal borrowing history was ever queried.
About Dr. Zager
Dr. Sam Zager is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, who holds an MD from Harvard University and an M.Phil. in Economic and Social History from Oxford University. His presentation on HeLPURS won top prize at the Maine Academy of Family Physicians Annual Conference in April 2014. Dr. Zager was trained in Family Medicine at Maine Medical Center. He practices at Martin’s Point Healthcare in Portland and volunteers at a Portland Public Health Department school-based clinic.
updated: November 26, 2014