While COVID-19 has laid bare the ongoing and devastating health disparities experienced by low income racial and ethnic minorities in central New Jersey, a new study by SC&I researchers finds that libraries that embrace health literacy initiatives need to build more trust and engage more deeply with the marginalized populations they serve if they are to contribute to the health and wellbeing of these particular community members.
“Equitable access to health information goes beyond just the availability of services,” researcher and SC&I Part-Time Faculty Member Nancy Kranich said. “Librarians must work with the community, rooting their work and decisions in what matters most to people so that their efforts are authentic and relevant.”
The team’s findings and research methods are described in “Health Literacy in Diverse Communities: The Strength of Weak Ties—An Exploration Between Academic Researchers and Public Libraries in Central New Jersey,” written by Kranich and published in the July issue of Library Trends devoted to library school research initiatives with local public libraries.
For several years, Kranich, along with SC&I Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science Charles Senteio and Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research's Jeanette Valentine, assembled a team of SC&I Master of Information students who worked with librarians in three public libraries in central New Jersey: the East Brunswick Public Library, the Franklin Township Public Library, and the New Brunswick Free Public Library. The team held community conversations with residents living near the three libraries about their health aspirations and concerns. Their research goal, Kranich wrote, was “to understand how these libraries might strengthen their relationships and engagement with diverse communities concerning health and wellness.”
In addition to helping the libraries understand their communities’ networks and identify the best ways to engage with them, Kranich said the project also provided the students with an opportunity to get involved in very real and authentic community-based research.
“Part of the reason I contributed to this issue of Library Trends, Kranich said, “was to also show how we involved SC&I Master of Information students in this kind of service-learning, public-scholarship opportunity, which enabled them to gain insights into local communities. We involved quite a few students in this project, from every angle. Some who spoke Spanish helped us interact with the Latino immigrant community, and others took notes at conversations held at the three libraries. The project offered the students a chance to engage in scholarship that used tools from the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation that they learned about in class to uncovering authentic community concerns nearby in central New Jersey.”
Ultimately, Kranich said the team found that people from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds seek information in different ways, and not all residents think of libraries as trusted sources of information.
They found that the Latinos and African Americans who joined the conversations depend on strong community ties (or each other) when they seek health information. In contrast, upper- and middle-class white and Asian residents in a neighboring community rely more on weaker social ties, so they are more trusting of institutions like libraries for health and wellness information.
Health literacy is linked with improved health outcomes, Kranich said, so it is critically important for libraries to develop ways to build stronger bonds with each of the diverse communities they serve if they are to become trusted and reliable sources of accurate information, especially if they are to address health disparities in their communities.
“As public libraries adopt health literacy programs to facilitate better access to information, they also need to align their programs and services to reflect the aspirations and concerns of more marginalized members of their communities,” Kranich said.
Additional findings, Kranich said, include realizing that “not all libraries in the region are prepared to serve as information hubs that empower citizens to make more informed decisions about their health. Nor are all local citizens encouraging them to assume such a role.”
That does not mean, Kranich explained, that these libraries are “not open to and capable of assuming a more active role in promoting health and wellness, either individually or collectively. But each community and library were at different stages in their readiness to act.”
To become ready, Kranich said, libraries “can start by turning outward toward their community. By gathering and incorporating ‘public knowledge’ along with ‘expert knowledge,’ they can reveal the underlying value they bring to their communities, uncover where they fit in a complex network of local health and wellness program and services, and address challenges."