Social Services, Health Information, and Librarianship

The Saint Catherine University MLIS program, organized by the student chapter of the Progressive Librarians Guild, is walking as a team in the Minnesota AIDS Walk next week.


As we’ve been doing some fundraising, I’ve been thinking about the connections between AIDS activism and librarianship. From the early work of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (which provided social services) and the radical politics of ACT UP (which focused on the political nature of the crisis) to more recent work of AIDS activists to continue educating new generations about the epidemic in both the United States and abroad, this form of activism has been about finding and creating networks of social support and information. It has been about connecting people with the information they need for prevention, care, and support, especially about translating specialized medical knowledge for the general public.

Librarians and other information professionals are crucial for the increasingly complex worlds of health informatics and more general health information. Just this week as well, I received an email about a RUSA continuing education course on health information with the following description:

“Health Information 101” prepares librarians to assist their patrons with access to reliable health information resources. Did you know that having librarians on staff who are savvy about health information websites, the business of healthcare and medical terminology can provide a great service to their library users? These skills are especially critical for libraries serving older adults–according to statistics gathered by the National Coalition for Literacy, adults ages 65 and older have lower average health literacy than adults in younger age groups. There’s no better time than May, which is National Older Americans Month, to enroll in this course! CEU credits are available. The course runs May 13-June 30.

This description highlights the need for librarians to understand not just how to access health information resources but also some basics of healthcare and medical terminology–a specific kind of literacy. Librarians’ role, then, is to teach patrons about this complex health information and terminology.

When I read the description, I thought of the importance of librarians working with health professionals, counselors, and social workers who are specialists in these health fields to learn about health resources and information. Instead of simply educating themselves in order to teach patrons, then, librarians can also work to establish networks of information and health specialists in order to provide patrons with the best information, referrals, and other advice.

While I was looking at AIDS information sites, I came across a great example of how librarians are working to connect patrons and social services agencies with the information they need about AIDS prevention, treatment, and care. The AIDS Library in Philadelphia is staffed by librarians who maintain a library and website of information. Their mission statement reads, “The mission of the AIDS Library is to improve access to health and support services, prevent HIV transmission, and continue to nurture life-long learning.” They work directly with both the general public and with the staff of AIDS service organizations. This model of librarians collaborating with social services is intriguing and warrants further exploration.

2 thoughts on “Social Services, Health Information, and Librarianship”

  1. Did you know St. Kate’s is working towards more collaboration with health informatics? (Probably, since they’ve brought it up more than once when I talk about collaborating with social work.) This could be a good avenue for further exploration, maybe with a unit in a MLIS/MSW course.

    1. Yes, definitely worth exploring more! Health informatics is a complicated interdisciplinary field, and as much as LIS professionals can bring their knowledge and expertise to that field, the better everyone will be, I think.

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