Public Libraries – Community-Based Health Clubs For the Brain and Mind?

Public libraries moved beyond just offering books long ago, but only now are demographic and scientific trends converging to sustain a more fundamental transformation in their role. A role in which they explicitly help promote cognitive health in the community, and potentially use Brain Fitness as a new framework to unify an array of lifelong learning, civic engagement, gaming, and health promotion initiatives.

A few months ago I spoke to librarians at The New York Public Library (NYPL), about “The Emerging Brain Fitness Field: Research and Implications.” I provided an introduction to how the brain works, discussed the growing research supporting how lifestyle factors contribute to lifelong cognitive health, and offered a way to navigate through this emerging and confusing field. This was part of NYPL’s first Health & Wellness Month for library staff, which in turn was an important enabler of major health events for older adults.

This experience highlights two new trends: 1) public libraries are focusing more on health & wellness promotion in order to engage older adults, 2) cognitive health or brain fitness is becoming a significant component of that promotion.

US Public Census data explains why libraries need to cater to an older audience. From 2000 to 2020, the number of Americans over the age of 55 is expected to grow from under 60 million to close to 100 million. This is due to expanded longevity and to the baby boomer generation moving up the population pyramid.

Brain health provides a unique opportunity for libraries to engage active boomers and seniors. Rohit Burman, manager of culture and public broadcasting at MetLife Foundation, explains, “Last year we identified a growing interest by boomers and seniors on brain health issues and thought that public libraries, as community and learning hubs, could play a major role. So, we decided to launch, in collaboration with the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and Libraries for the Future, a new iteration of the Fit for Life program, focused squarely on promoting brain fitness.”

The Fit for Life program supports 17 library systems from January 2009 to January 2010 that launch new initiatives to promote brain health via the following research-based lifestyle factors: diet, physical exercise, intellectual challenge, mental stimulation through new experiences, and socialization.

There are other new programs libraries are using to promote brain health. For example, the Lifelong Access Libraries Initiative, funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies, is in practice an all-inclusive way for older adults to improve their brain fitness through civic engagement.

Gaming, thanks to the Nintendo Wii, is quickly emerging as a major opportunity to foster intergenerational activities. At least 18 of the 89 NYPL locations ordered Wii gaming equipment and software programs in 2008, for both in-library use and to be checked out. The American Library Association recently celebrated an official gaming day, including both board games and, yes, video games.

Brigid Cahalan, NYPL Older Adults Services Specialist, explains that Wii gaming has become one of the most popular activities to engage older adults in the libraries that offer it regularly, complementing the more serious computer classes that had long been the major attraction. She highlights, “If we want to become the hubs of learning and community activity, we need to offer new types of social activities.”

In short, libraries are already innovating to engage older adults with lifelong learning, civic engagement, gaming, health & wellness promotion. Brain fitness seems to be the glue that binds all these activities together.

This new reality raises some interesting questions for librarians, aging, and lifelong learning professionals to consider: Will public libraries become the brain gyms of the future?

Marzena Ermler, Coordinator of Professional Development at NYPL, explains the emphasis on brain health this way, “If only we could help people understand that libraries are healthy places for them to go. Learning through life is very important to maintain our brains in top shape as we get older.”

Pauline Rothstein, Ph.D., Co-editor of ALA book Longevity and Libraries: Unexpected Voices to be published in late 2009, recommends libraries to “think of brain fitness as the new concept that can help integrate disperse activities, identify additional needed resources, and explain our value to society. It makes sense to start with specific programming, and then use a new framework to evaluate a variety of library services. Public libraries need to redefine themselves away from old thinking and material objects (buildings, books, DVDs…) and focus on services: how do we educate, how do we help navigate the growing avalanche of information ‘specifically around how to keep our brains in shape?”

That evolution will require libraries to proactively listen to community expectations, and to partner with local organizations, such as seniors centers, to meet new requirements. If reshaped as Health Clubs of the Brain and the Mind, libraries would provide a critical service to an aging population and become centers of information and destinations for brain fitness programs.

Copyright (c) 2009 SharpBrains