Using libraries to promote healthy living

​​​​​​​Norfolk County Council is using its libraries to promote healthy living and target some of the most pressing health priorities for the local population. This case study forms part of the Value of culture - health and wellbeing section of our online Culture Hub.

Norfolk’s libraries are successfully delivering on wider council priorities such as the public health agenda. This is seen as critical in a county where almost two-thirds of the adult population are overweight or obese (over 65 per cent, higher than the England average of 62 per cent). Norfolk also has growing rates of child obesity and one of the lowest levels of childhood activity in the east of England region (just under 50 per cent).

As well as actively promoting healthy living and physical activity, Norfolk’s library service is helping to target other health challenges, such as early years’ health and dementia. Norfolk’s population has an older age profile than England as a whole and an estimated 16,400 people here have dementia, either diagnosed or undiagnosed.

Impact of the activity

Partnership work between Norfolk’s public health team and local library teams is making a tangible difference to the health of residents and re-affirming the place of libraries at the heart of healthy communities. The Healthy Libraries initiative is delivered across the county’s 47 libraries. Activities include a monthly wellbeing-themed ‘neighbourhood lunch’ and adult colour-me-calm sessions. Exercise-based activity has included ‘hula hoop’ challenges and a pedal-powered smoothie bike, used to raise awareness of the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables.

Library staff have been trained in understanding health improvement and in mental health first aid. They can offer information, advice and guidance on local health services and projects. The Healthy Libraries initiative has also led to new partnerships, such as working with national and local cancer charities: all libraries are now local cancer information hubs with a range of leaflets to inform and support people.

Between May 2015 and April 2016, over 2,000 Norfolk residents participated in a dedicated health-based activity in a library. In 2016, Norfolk County Council received the ‘Libraries Change Lives’ award from the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in recognition of this work. Councillor Margaret Dewsbury, Portfolio Holder for Communities, said: “Of course we still have to make difficult choices over resources, but we are confident that our library service is more than pulling its weight when it comes to supporting our residents and relieving the pressure on other services.”

Sarah Hassan, Assistant Head of the Norfolk Library and Information Service, said: “Library staff, customers and volunteers have been able to enter at any level they choose and tailor what happens in their Healthy Library to the local community. So if customers express an interest in walking for their health, or there is an obvious need for a friendship group, then a very small amount of money for staffing, materials and refreshments can make those things happen.

“We have found that the rest will then follow – people and partners want to get involved, supermarkets will donate fruit and veg for the smoothie bike activities, a tremendous amount of goodwill is generated and we can make sure that all sorts of health messages are embedded.”

Looking to the future

The public health and library teams will continue to work together, and with partners such as local doctors’ surgeries, to further embed the universal health offer in all Norfolk’s libraries. Sarah Hassan said: “This is now no longer a project but part of our mainstream service and I think for many of our staff a real mission.”

Key learning points

  • Remember that libraries are brilliant enablers and facilitators. 
  • Make sure expert partners do the ‘expert delivery’ part of any health activity. 

For further information contact Sarah Hassan, Assistant Head, Norfolk Library and Information Service: