Scotland’s libraries could become hubs for health and well-being. The librarian will see you now, finds Sandra Dick

Their shelves are packed with bestsellers, well-thumbed Tartan Noir novels, weighty tomes packed with facts, "how to" guides – indeed, every kind of topic and tale can be found through their doors.

Since Dunfermline-born philanthropist Andrew Carnegie opened the world’s first Carnegie public library in his hometown in 1883 readers have nourished their minds with books and expanded their knowledge of the world, the universe and everything in between.

Now it’s being suggested that Scotland’s libraries could play an even wider role, by supporting the general health and well-being of the nation.

A new report from the Scottish Library and Information Council suggests building on Carnegie’s original vision of libraries as places of self-improvement and literacy by turning them into modern health hubs offering a range of health-related services.

It could lead to patients bypassing the doctor’s packed surgery or busy clinics and heading to the library for a range of health-related support – raising the prospect of "the librarian will see you now".

According to the SLIC report, libraries’ status as trusted and familiar spaces makes them ideal venues for services such as cancer support groups, reading groups which can tackle isolation and dementia care projects.

However, they could also provide a wider range of services, such as screening programmes and mental health counselling, and become the focus for national health awareness events.

The report, Health on the Shelf, also raises the possibility of a nationwide standard that would see all public libraries offering a core of health-related services alongside a specially-tailored provision to meet the individual needs and demographics of their own communities, such as for elderly people or young families.

The overall impact could alleviate stress on hard-pushed GPs and other health services, helping to save the NHS in Scotland up to £3.2 million a year, it claims.

Pamela Tulloch, the chief exec at SLIC said: “Andrew Carnegie was very much about self-improvement, he saw literacy as a route out of poverty and greater health opportunities for people.

“This is not such a huge leap from the traditional values of public libraries – reading for pleasure is very good for mental health and wellbeing.”

Many of Scotland’s libraries currently offer locally run dementia groups, autism-friendly events and provide space for support groups such as cancer advice sessions run by charity Macmillan Cancer Support.

However, the report suggests there is scope to boost what is currently available to meet a wider range of health needs, while a national branding exercise could embed libraries in the public’s mind as a clear destination for health and wellbeing guidance.

It says special training for librarians delivered in partnership with the NHS is already providing them with a broader knowledge of trusted resources to help library users manage their own conditions.

Ms Tulloch added: “The self-maintenance agenda is very high profile within the NHS, and libraries are community-based places that practitioners can use as advice venues.

“Many have space for hire or strong partnerships with the third sector, health-related groups or NHS clinics.

“They could create a partnership programme around, say, health screening. Or audiology services, such as providing hearing aid batteries which helps people who may have faced having long bus journeys to hospital or who may have had to remain deaf while they waited for hospital appointments.”

The open and relaxed library environment is said to be particularly beneficial for people seeking advice on sensitive matters including cancer care, mental health and even death-related issues such as handling grief. Private rooms and quiet spaces within libraries could be used by counsellors or as therapy rooms for a range of alternative health therapies such as reflexology, massage or yoga.

“Libraries are safe, trusted spaces in local communities, people who use them build connections with staff and the people they see there,” Ms Tulloch adds.

“People can go there by themselves, chat to people and build up a level of trust. They often feel more comfortable asking what they think might be regarded as a silly question in a library than in a clinical context, where there’s often a room with a closed door.”

The SLIC report says 50% of people in Scotland use public libraries, with the facilities already playing a role in the health and wellbeing of the nation by helping to offset social isolation and providing access to self-help books.

The success of health-related projects currently being offered in some libraries points to the unlocked potential that a more coherent programme of services could bring, it adds.

One of the most successful is a string of 14 drop-in services and 19 information points operated across 33 Glasgow libraries by Macmillan Cancer Support.

The volunteer-run drop-in service offers referrals to other support services such as complementary therapies to help with sleep and support accessing benefits while providing a ‘listening ear’ for people’s concerns.

Launched in Easterhouse in Glasgow in 2009, the charity has pinpointed the ‘non-clinical’ space of local libraries as key to its success.

Craig Menzies, Macmillan Programme Manager, said: “Our research shows that people don’t ask clinical professionals certain questions or don’t want to burden them by talking about some of the more emotional questions related to their condition.

“Libraries are trusted, local, accessible and there are professionals who can help people navigate the challenges in their lives.”

Another health-related service in Ayrshire libraries, Action on Hearing Loss, provides helps people make the most of their hearing aids including basic maintenance and battery replacement, often avoiding the need for NHS appointments.

Research into the scheme found 69% of respondents said that the support provided had made a ‘big improvement’ to their daily life and 78% felt happier because they could manage their hearing loss better. The service was rated excellent by 83% of users.

“The evidence from library users indicates that many people find the library services invaluable for their mental health, reducing anxiety, reducing feelings of loneliness, and provision of self-management information and support,” adds the SLIC report.

“Without such interventions some of these people may well have reached a crisis point and appear somewhere in the emergency or welfare system; many GP visits are connected to stress and loneliness.

“Through taking part in health and wellbeing activities in libraries, it has provided them with the tools, information and support to manage their health.”

The report adds: “There is scope for a review of what a health and wellbeing offer from public libraries looks like, the benefits it brings to people, what models of delivery work best, and the contribution such library activity makes towards achieving personal, local and national goals.”

Ends main run.

Lending support: the libraries that are helping already

Dr You, a library partnership with NHS Western Isles, healthcare practitioners and voluntary organisations, offers readers access to specially selected self-help and health-related reading material designed to help them better understand their own health.

Kathleen Milne of Western Isles Libraries said: “There may be people who are scared to talk about a condition or don’t want to go to a doctor. This gives them information so they can feel a bit more in control.

“The books on the list are very accessible. People can then decide whether they need more help, or if they can do it themselves.”

Libraries across Scotland are also supporting dementia patients through schemes designed to bring comfort and prompt conversations.

Playlist for Life, available in 40 community libraries from Aberdeenshire to the Borders, enables someone to create a playlist of their favourite music to help stimulate memories and reminiscence for dementia patients.

While Moments in Time, offered by Fife library service, features free themed reminiscence sessions and uses stories, poems, objects, music to generate conversations, while Movie Moments provides dementia-friendly films in a relaxed environment with lights turned up and sound is turned down. The service has also offered dementia-friendly discos, light games designed to encourage people with dementia to have fun.

Others offer memory boxes, dementia cafes and have staff trained in helping people with dementia or their carers access self-help books.

Aberdeen City Library Service’s Make Every Opportunity Count scheme encourages staff to chat to library users and then sign post them towards relevant services and library resources. It has focused on providing guidance on diabetes, fall prevention and isolation.