Think well: Healthier by the book
Local Libraries are no longer just about reading: they are the hubs of their communities — which is why they are at the forefront of a new government initiative to promote Healthy living, Celine Naughton reports
You can't judge a book by its cover, especially when it comes to the value of the library to the health of a community.
If it's been an age since you visited your local branch, you're in for a culture shock. The image of the fusty old repository has been well and truly shelved in favour of a thriving new social setting that's fast becoming the nerve centre of every neighbourhood.
Gone are the days when you entered reverentially and chose your books in hushed tones - now you're likely to find the happy squeals of toddlers at storytime, watch a cookery demonstration, or hear experts advise on everything from growing vegetables to coping with the stresses of modern living.
You could say your local library has turned a new leaf with the latest Government initiative, Healthy Ireland at Your Library, which provides a wealth of health information and resources at all 330 public libraries across the country. But libraries have been adapting all the time to meet the changing needs of the communities they serve - and the role of the librarian has been transformed from curating and archiving books to become something of a first-stop community health adviser.
"Librarians have local knowledge," says Sandra Turner, Healthy Ireland co-ordinator for Kildare. "For example, if you want to get active, we can tell you about walking or cycling trails and give you contact details for local groups, or put you in touch with a local historian to accompany your group and talk about the sights on the way.
"All kinds of groups gather here: book clubs, conversational language groups and parent-and-toddler groups who come to read stories, put on puppet shows or just have a cup of tea and support each other. It's about much more than reading - it's the hub of a community."
Yet books are still an intrinsic part of that community, and a core collection of healthy living titles is being placed in all libraries by the end of this year to reflect the six pillars of the Healthy Ireland programme: Healthy Childhood; Healthy Eating and Active Living; Wellbeing and Mental Health; Positive Ageing; Alcohol, and Tobacco-Free.
"The beauty of it is that wherever you live - even in the smallest village - your local library will have the same stock as the biggest library in the country," says Sandra. "The Healthy Ireland collection is not a postcode lottery: it's an equal service for all."
And it's not just old-fashioned print books that the service provides. There are audio books, e-books, digital health and fitness magazines and other online resources that users can access, order to their nearest branch or download at any time of day. You can borrow from one branch and return your items to any other.
And local branches regularly put on events and programmes, some of which prove a lifeline to members.
"Kildare's Toys, Technology and Training programme is designed for children with sensory issues, dyslexia, ADHD or autism and other syndromes, as well as children who have no diagnosed condition but may just be sensitive or anxious," says Sandra.
"Specialist therapy toys can be expensive, but we have them available for families to borrow for free. It's a really popular programme. We are also looking at introducing autism-friendly hours, when we can dim the lights and put on sensory storytimes, and parents won't have to worry about getting judgemental looks from others if their child has a meltdown. This is already happening successfully in Cork."
As children turn to the teen years, they face new challenges.
"Teenagers come to the library to study, so we make them aware that these other resources are available for them," says Sandra. "We run events all the time for different ages. Last year, we hosted a talk by Athy boxer Eric Donovan, who's an ambassador for mindfulness.
"For older people, especially in rural communities, the library offers a social outlet too. It's an opportunity to have a chat, read the paper and meet neighbours. We have an age-friendly programme called Older Wiser Laughter, which covers things like music appreciation, drawing, decluttering, walking and fitness."
Yet despite all the positive changes in the library, sometimes people just want a quiet place to sit and read, and take time out from today's busy world to unwind and de-stress.
Bernie Meenaghan, Healthy Ireland co-ordinator for South Dublin, has seen a growing interest in mental health over the 20 years that she's been in the library service.
"Libraries are warm, welcoming spaces, physically and psychologically," she says. "It's good to be around other people, so it's worth making the effort to drop into your library and see what's happening."
South Dublin events for the first quarter of this year include a lunchtime talk on Recovering from Mental Illness by Professor Jim Lucey; a six-week course on Eating for a Healthy Heart; Tai Chi; Caring for the Carer; Growing Vegetables in the Urban Garden, and Cool Food for Kids.
Healthy eating is a particular focus in Galway as the county celebrates its designation as European Region of Gastronomy 2018. All 29 of Galway's library branches will use the opportunity this year to spread the word about eating well and being active.
"The local service we provide combined with the huge gamut of online resources has had a monumental effect," says county librarian Catherine Gallagher. "Whether you live urban or rural, you can tap into the initiative, attend an event - some of which will be in Irish - pick up information and access online material.
"Trusted libraries build healthy communities, and that's why we're best placed to deliver the Healthy Ireland message to all our citizens."
Tipperary is a region of contrasting landscapes, and loneliness can be an issue for people living in its remotest hinterlands.
"We're a rural county with an ageing population," says the county's Healthy Ireland co-ordinator, Emer O'Brien. "We're dealing with issues like social isolation and unemployment, which impact on people's mental health and emotional wellbeing."
Two years ago, in partnership with the HSE, South Tipperary developed a programme called Living Well with Dementia, which provides information and support for people with dementia and their families. "In Carrick-on-Suir, we recently held a talk on dementia that was so oversubscribed, we're planning at least another one," explains Emer.
In Cashel, athletics legend Catherina McKiernan was invited to talk about Chi Running - how to improve your running technique and prevent injuries.
In Tipperary town, talks include Post-Breast Cancer Care; Cognitive Behavioural Therapy; Mindfulness, and Healthy Eating for Young People.
"This is an example of how libraries look out and beyond the book, to take our place in the community and create a space where people can come and use the facilities for their own purpose," says Emer.
"The library service has grown into something much more than borrowing books. It's a place where you'll find information, social engagement, events and resources that you can tap into.
"Libraries are for the people, and people trust their libraries. It used to be that if someone had a health problem, they'd ask their doctor or get a book from the library. Now they Google it, or click on a pop-up box that appears on their screen - but the information sourced that way may not be reliable.
"The Healthy Ireland collection is approved and validated by professionals who are the best in their field. And remember, all our services are free.
"This provides equal access to quality information for everyone in the country, no matter where you live, from the most rural outpost to the heart of the city."
I n a world where we feel bombarded or overloaded by information all the time, where better to get trusted health information than from the Healthy Ireland collection, available from all 330 public libraries nationwide. The collection will include 50 books by the end of the year. Here are just some of them...
What's on the bookshelves?
■ The Plan by Aoife Hearne - recipes and practical advice on weight management
■ Your Middle Years by Paula Mee and Kate O'Brien - a manual for the menopause and beyond
■ Coming Through Depression by Tony Bates - a guide to recovery for anyone experiencing depression, and their family and friends
■ An Introduction to Coping with Stress by Lee Brosnan - a self-help guide with practical strategies to identify and cope with stress
■ Mind Over Mood by Christine A. Padesky and Dennis Greenberger - change how you feel by changing the way you think
■ Assert Yourself by Gael Lindenfield - how to improve your self-esteem, deal with unfair criticism and communicate effectively
■ The Illustrated Easy Way to Stop Drinking by Allen Carr, with illustrations by Bev Aisbett - the stop-smoking guru's renowned techniques applied to the alcohol trap
■ Get Your Loved One Sober by Robert Meyers and Brenda L. Wolfe - alternatives to nagging, pleading and threatening, to help make treatment an attractive option
■ Stop Smoking with Allen Carr - a classic
■ Pilgrim Paths in Ireland by John G. O'Dwyer - a bible of walking trails
■ Up and Running by Julia Jones and Shauna Reid - an eight-week introduction to the joys of running
■ Mindful Walking by Hugh O'Donovan - walk your way to mental and physical wellbeing
■ Parenting is Child's Play by David Coleman - the popular clinical psychologist and Irish Independent columnist guides parents in giving their children the best start in life
■ The Incredible Years by Carolyn Webster-Stratton - a troubleshooting guide for parents of children aged 2-8 years
Go to librariesireland.ie to find your local library and learn about the services provided - including information on the Healthy Ireland at Your Library initiative.