“I can’t really say that we’ve transformed the health of Oklahoma quite yet, but we’re working on it.”
– Leslie Gelders, Literacy Coordinator, Oklahoma Department of Libraries

StoryWalk Ponca City
StoryWalk Ponca City

If you were to ask someone in Oklahoma where the best place to find health information is, their first response may not be their local library. But thanks to LSTA funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, that’s beginning to change.

Accessing information to build healthier lives—and putting it into practice—has never been more important in the Sooner State. In 2018, the United Health Foundation ranked the health of Oklahomans 47th in the nation. Studies predict that by 2030, Oklahoma will be the most obese state in the country.

To change the health trajectory of her state, Oklahoma Department of Libraries (ODL) Literacy Coordinator Leslie Gelders knew that health information, coupled with locally designed and driven strategies, had to be available in places where people visit regularly—like the library.

ODL’s goal was to do much more than educate, however. They wanted to engage Oklahoma residents in taking charge of their health in several areas of their lives—educationally, occupationally, and physically—by providing programming that would encourage them to move more, eat better, and address their mental health.

Gelders started by focusing on the connections between low literacy and poor health. She used the funding from IMLS to initiate and expand health and wellness efforts for adult learners, at-risk populations, children, women, seniors, and families—all of whom visit libraries to get information.

Her plan started with five sites in 2012. Eight years later, ODL supports 31 sites statewide, to which they provide resources, continuing education, and ongoing technical assistance so that programs have a chance to take root and grow. For their part, grant sites are required to focus their efforts on their county’s most urgent health needs, from diabetes to high blood pressure; partner with community organizations; and provide information and resources at basic literacy levels.

An Unlikely Partnership

Virtual Reality at SWOKC
Virtual Reality at SWOKC

Libraries offer tremendous potential to bridge a gap when it comes to health information. A 2015 Pew Research Center study showed that 73 percent of people who visited public libraries went there to find health information. Similarly, IMLS reported that over a 12-month period, an estimated 28 million people used libraries to find health and wellness information.

Libraries, much like museums, schools, hospitals, and other community anchor institutions, serve as sources of trusted information that invite exploration and learning. Libraries and librarians are uniquely positioned to see community needs in a different way: every day, they help patrons navigate the information and resources at their fingertips. 

Gelders saw this as an opportunity to connect people to actual strategies that could improve their health and wellness. Doing so required working with community partners who could provide relevant, credible, and free information and programming throughout the state.

In her view, the partnerships have made all the difference.

“These community partnerships all tie together to address the critical health issues that Oklahomans are facing,” Gelders said. “As the projects have grown and evolved, the programs have gotten quite innovative.”

Thanks to a collaboration with local parks and recreation departments and using funding from IMLS, ODL has five sites that offer “story walks” in the park, which combine adventure with exercise. Signs throughout the park feature pages from a children’s book, so families can walk through together and read. There also are health and wellness suggestions along the way that people can put into practice long after they leave the park, like the importance of drinking water instead of sugary drinks.

A collaboration with Oklahoma State University and ODL library grantees has resulted in caregiver training for people who are responsible for the health and wellbeing of family members who are aging or have health concerns. Similarly, attending a basic stroke prevention class ended up saving the life of one participant, who experienced a brain aneurysm only a few weeks after the training took place. Since she knew the symptoms, she was able to get the treatment she needed quickly.

Beyond the individual health impacts these activities are surely making, people begin to recognize that libraries and their partners are positive forces driving health and wellness.

“People in the communities are now coming to libraries for health information and seeing them as part of the solution,” said Gelders.

Innovative Approaches to Reach Health Goals

Yoga at Moore PL
Yoga at Moore PL

ODL’s programming is designed to reach deeper and last longer than producing a brochure people may read once and throw away. They strive to inspire creative, interactive solutions to improving the health of community members that can take place year-round and be integrated into people’s daily lives.

One community created a Facebook group with a virtual walking competition where people are challenged to accomplish a set number of steps together. Another partnered with Master Gardeners in the neighborhood to plant a community vegetable garden, then hosted healthy cooking demonstrations to teach and promote better eating habits.

Even for adult exercise programs, the libraries offer unconventional class options such as tai chi, ballroom dancing, or Argentinian tango lessons—which fill up quickly, resulting in overwhelmingly positive feedback from enthusiastic community members. They are even reaching populations that may not be able to get out to the library.

“One of our libraries has used some of their funds to have a library program at the local veterans’ center and do chair exercises with the veterans,” Gelders said. “Another purchased a VR headset and took it to an assisted living center, where the elderly patients can be lonely or depressed. One patient who grew up in Paris had a big smile on her face because she got to see the Eiffel Tower through the goggles.”

Such examples are redefining the role of libraries in the pursuit of health.

Next Steps Toward a Healthier Future

With the IMLS grant in its eighth year and a list of partners well into the triple digits, there is no doubt that this program’s footprint is both deep and wide and innovative programs continue to spring up. Recently, Gelders visited the town of Blanchard with her colleague and attended a librarian-led Zumba class. In her view, this is just what the program was intended to do: be creative in its offerings so that people can engage not just once, but over time.

About the Project

Grant Project Name: Health Literacy
Grant Log Number: LS-00-18-0037-18
G2S Project Code: 2017-OK-79117
Year Awarded: 2018
Recipient: Oklahoma Department of Libraries
Project Contact:
Leslie Gelders
Literacy Coordinator
Oklahoma Department of Libraries

Website: https://libraries.ok.gov/

LSTA State Grants