Catawba County Library System: Leveraging Healthy People 2030 Objectives and Community Partnerships to Deliver More than Books

This blog post is part of our quarterly series highlighting the work of Healthy People 2030 Champion organizations. Healthy People 2030 Champions are organizations recognized for their work to improve the health and well-being of people in their communities and to help achieve Healthy People 2030’s goals. 

Catawba County Library System in Western North Carolina serves a population of more than 160,000 people. While providing traditional services, like helping patrons access books and other information resources, is a key part of the library’s role, Collaborative Services Librarian Erica Derr emphasizes that the library offers much more: “Our work is really about making living better — for everyone.” 

The library carries out this work by offering creative programming in 3 main areas: lifelong learning, health and wellness, and job and career development. It works closely with a variety of community partners to create and sustain these programs, which support several Leading Health Indicators (LHIs) and other Healthy People 2030 objectives.

Creating opportunities for lifelong learning

Like libraries across the nation, Catawba County Library System considers education an essential part of its work. “I remind people all the time that the best way to keep your brain fit is to learn something new that challenges your brain,” Derr says.

The library offers many programs that support education-related Healthy People 2030 objectives, including:

Specifically, the library promotes reading proficiency at all ages through programs like story times, opportunities to read aloud to therapy dogs, reading challenges, and partnerships with area schools. It also offers a range of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) activities for elementary students, teen-specific programming on topics like 3D printing and coding, and opportunities for adults to improve their digital literacy skills. 

Many of these educational programs take place at one of the library’s 7 branches. However, for county residents living in rural areas, getting to the library’s physical locations can be challenging. That’s where its mobile library, Catawba County Library to Go, comes in. The mobile library is a van loaded with furniture, rugs, tables, and (of course) books. It travels to areas of the county that don’t have a library branch or where residents tend to face transportation barriers — like nursing homes. Library to Go offers much of the same programming that county residents can access at physical branches, including story times for young readers, robotics and virtual reality devices for children and teens, and job application support for adults. 

Bringing services directly to residents is one way the library addresses social determinants of health (like lack of transportation access), a Healthy People 2030 priority area. Other efforts include providing free coats, diapers, and food in a safe, nonjudgmental space, which aligns with Healthy People LHIs like NWS-01: Reduce household food insecurity and hunger.

“Equity is so important to us at the library, so we try hard to provide the same opportunities and resources to everyone in the county — and Library to Go makes that possible, ” says Derr.

Helping patrons get active — in and out of the library

In addition to helping patrons keep their minds sharp, Catawba County Library System encourages them to take care of their bodies. It even sets goals for staff to help boost its health and wellness programming — and ultimately help improve the health of the community. For example, Derr’s goal in 2023 was to facilitate at least 25 programs to foster healthy eating, active living, behavioral health, and chronic disease prevention. 

Under its umbrella of health and wellness programming, the library is working to foster an interest in physical activity and lower barriers to participating by making programs fun, free, and safe — efforts that closely align with Healthy People 2030 Leading Health Indicator PA-05: Increase the proportion of adults who do enough aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity

The library partners with fitness organizations and exercise instructors to deliver a wide range of free fitness classes, including yoga and Zumba, at different library branches. This is especially important, Derr says, because “not every neighborhood is safe to exercise in, and we want people to know the library is a safe space for them.” She says the classes consistently draw between 10 and 40 participants. 

One librarian, a certified yoga instructor, leads a range of yoga classes at her library branch, including chair yoga and gentle stretching to provide options for all ages. She also offers a monthly session in Catawba County’s newest park, Mountain Creek Park, to help library patrons enjoy the benefits of yoga and gain the positive health impacts of being in nature. The library sponsors other physical activity programs and wellness-related events out in the community. For example, it facilitates a weekly meet-up in community parks that includes a tai chi warm-up followed by an hourlong hike during all but the coldest times of year. Additionally, staff host programs at the library’s community garden, where patrons can connect socially, get their hands dirty, and learn about growing fresh foods.

“Our health and wellness programs are a huge priority for us,” says Derr. “I’m proud to say that so far this fiscal year [as of early March 2024], we’ve facilitated over 140 health and wellness programs across the library system — and since the fiscal year ends in June, we still have a few months to go!”

Empowering job seekers with Wi-Fi, workspaces, and skill-building

Catawba County Library System also prioritizes helping community members find jobs — an effort that’s closely related to another Healthy People 2030 Leading Health Indicator: SDOH-02: Increase employment in working-age people

When it comes to supporting job seekers, one of the most important roles the library plays is providing free, reliable Wi-Fi in its buildings. That’s because limited access to reliable internet is a major barrier for people in the county who need to find jobs. Derr notes that 15 percent of county residents don’t have broadband internet access “because the infrastructure is not there to support it. For that to improve, it’ll take an investment in that infrastructure.” Until that time comes, the library is there to help. 

In addition to providing Wi-Fi across its branches, the library installed 5 soundproof booths equipped with videoconferencing technology that patrons can use for virtual job interviews or meetings, telehealth visits, online classes, court proceedings, or tutoring sessions. The library also works closely with NCWorks, a state-sponsored careers program, to hold events where career specialists and librarians help job seekers improve their interview skills, write résumés, and fill out job applications. 

Just like with its education and physical activity programs, Catawba County Library System also gets creative to support job seekers and their families. One Sunday each month, the library deploys the Library to Go van to a laundromat in the town of Long View so people can connect to the van’s Wi-Fi and get help with job applications and résumés. The Library to Go librarian offers story time for children during these visits, too.

The library specifically chose Long View for this outreach because it has the lowest life expectancy in the county, according to Census tract data. “This outreach has really been an asset to our community,” Derr says. “It’s a consistent and reliable source of support for people who need it most.”

Lessons Learned

When it comes to producing high-quality programs for patrons, Derr says working with the right community partners is key. She shares some ideas about how to find the right organizations to partner with and ensure things run smoothly:

Get involved in the community.

Knowing about the work that other community-based organizations are doing has been essential for Catawba County Library System to find new partners. Along with representatives from 50 other area nonprofits, Derr attends the Catawba County United Way Interagency Council meeting — where each organization shares information about its work and the resources it needs.

Team up with partners to make programs easier to access.

Working with community partners expands the number and types of venues you can use for your events — which can make them accessible to more people. Think about where in the community people are spending their time and whether there’s a potential partner that can help you reach them there — similar to how Catawba County Library System brings Library to Go to the laundromat. And consider using publicly funded spaces, like parks, for events promoting health and wellness.

Remember that working with other organizations helps you — and them.

Derr notes that working with the library can help partner organizations meet their own objectives, a point that may help potential partners get on board with a collaboration. “In many cases, we’re helping them meet their outreach goals while also helping our library patrons accomplish some things that they want to accomplish.”

Get on the same page — and then document it!

Derr says it’s important to be up front with partners about any guidelines or rules they need to follow (for example, programs at the library must be completely free and nothing can be sold). She also suggests documenting each partner’s roles and responsibilities — and how much they’ll spend — before starting on the work.

Categories: Blog, Healthy People in Action