Miami Opens Health Library

On April 2, the Miami-Dade Public Library System (MDPLS) in Florida officially opened the Westchester Library Health and Wellness Information Center. The branch is centrally located within Miami-Dade County, near the Westchester Regional Library, the county’s second busiest library location.

MDPLS logo“This is not a clinic. This is not a medical office. This is not a business. This is for the people,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Javier D. Souto at the opening of the Westchester Library Health and Wellness Information Center.

On April 2, the Miami-Dade Public Library System (MDPLS) in Florida officially opened the Westchester Library Health and Wellness Information Center. The branch is centrally located within Miami-Dade County, near the Westchester Regional Library, the county’s second busiest library location.

At the opening, Daniella Levine Cava, mayor of Miami-Dade County, said, “As the first of its kind in the county we must replicate this, and as the first of its kind in the country, people are going to come here and learn what we’re doing.”

Libraries big and small have dedicated portions of their facilities to everything from telehealth to culinary literacy, but the Westchester Library Health and Wellness Information Center is, according to local organizers, the first custom-built, stand-alone library branch specifically focused on community health.

The new location is seen as an experiment. Branch Manager Pablo Lopez said, “We know that this is a novel concept,” and as such he and the rest of the MDPLS team intend to intentionally incorporate assessment into the day-to-day operations of the branch, which has a full-time staff of four.

Lopez said the team’s approach to assessment is “phenomenological. It is always going back and looking at the data and listening to the community. They’ll let us know which partners [are] crucial, and which programs and services are effective. [In this branch] we’re going to take what works and innovate and keep pushing it forward. And that means establishing personal relationships with our partners the same way we do with our patrons, with that same level of trust. Together, they’ll give us all the data we need to evaluate success.”

Central to the operations of the branch are partnerships. These build on years of community engagement and innovation by MDPLS, including a partnership with Miami’s Florida International University and SEFLIN (Southeast Florida Library Information Network) that enabled MDPLS to start its social worker program.

In addition to access to social services, the new branch has everything from a Charlie Cart mobile kitchen, to fitness equipment that can be used at the branch or in the adjacent “Francisco” Human Rights Park, to “an auditorium for seminars, workshops, presentations and exercise classes,” according to an MDPLS statement.

The library embraces a holistic sense of community health, including environmental health. To contribute to sustainability of the environment, the branch is LEED-certified and is the first library location in the county with free electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.

The story of the Westchester Library Health and Wellness Information Center begins in 2004, when the citizens of Miami-Dade County passed the Building Better Communities General Obligation Bond (GOB) Program. The GOB included funding for a range of public goods, including libraries.

Commissioner Souto advocated among the county commissioners to allocate $1 million from the GOB program to fund the new branch. According to Library Director Ray Baker, the funding for the branch came from the GOB program designed to support primary healthcare facilities.

With the funding in hand and a building under construction, MDPLS had to figure out how to staff the new branch. Baker turned to Lopez, who, before becoming the branch manager of MDPLS’s California Club Branch, was a medical librarian.

Lopez said he sees community engagement as an essential pillar of his job at the new library. He said success will come “one patron at a time. If someone goes away with something that can help them personally, we’re already a success.”

Many of the services offered at the branch will be offered by library partners. Leila Khalil, chief of communications and community engagement for MDPLS, said that at the grand opening she heard the many health partners in attendance talk about how excited they were to have this facility in the county.

Khalil said that the Florida Department of Health was excited to start doing hybrid cooking classes at the branch. The facility is set up for hybrid programs that people can join from home or in person. The Department of Health was, according to Khalil, “so impressed that the facility had an auditorium that is state of the art. They say it is an ideal space for them to reach out to the community.” Lopez sees the new branch as a “central place where all of these different health organizations can come together for different events.”

The library offers programs presented by everyone from the Nicklaus Children’s Health System to the Alliance for Aging. Lopez said the library will offer programs in Spanish and Haitian Creole, as well as in English. According to the U.S. Census, 75 percent of Dade county residents speak a non-English language at home, with the most common being Spanish and Haitian Creole.

Baker hopes that the library system can, through this innovative space, generate best practices that will be useful not only throughout MDPLS but across the nation. Said Baker, “As this catches on, we will see if other areas of our library system want to do something similar, either as part of an existing branch, or as additional stand-alone locations. We’re also going to see what kind of staffing this area may require. We know from our experience with YOUMedia and our makerspaces that these specialized areas often require specialized staffing.”

According to Lopez, the staff at the Westchester Library Health and Wellness Information Center is passionate about health and community. It also calls on library students who share this passion. Lopez is working with a student pursuing their MLIS who is helping him with cooking programs, he said.

Lopez said he and his staff are excited at the possibility of continuously learning as they run this new location. “You can’t just get your degree, and lay back and take it easy,” he said. “You have to learn about the community you serve and continuously cultivate your competencies to serve their needs, whether through professional development such as CHIS [Consumer Health Information Specialization, a program provided by the Medical Library Association (MLA)] classes, continuing education opportunities, or in other ways.” Lopez mentioned that he knows librarians who got Zumba certification and were trained in yoga to personally bring these services to the community.

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