LIBRARY INSIDER: Bridging the digital divide in public housing communities


The Pitt Health Sciences Library System (HSLS) is one of eight health sciences libraries across the country coordinating regional and national activities to serve the health information needs of health professionals and the public. With funding from the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), HSLS serves as a Regional Medical Library and leads the National Network of Libraries of Medicine Middle Atlantic Region (NNLM MAR), covering Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

The goal of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine is to advance the progress of medicine and improve public health by providing U.S. health professionals with equal access to biomedical information and improving individuals access to information to enable them to make informed decisions about their health.

Through a partnership with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) All of Us Research Program, NNLM Middle Atlantic Region focuses on improving consumer access to high quality health information in communities throughout the U.S., specifically, by working with public libraries.

Much of the outreach conducted by NNLM Middle Atlantic Region revolves around health literacy and access to digital health information resources, including evaluating and navigating reliable websites and mobile apps.  However, in an increasingly connected world, digital literacy is an essential stepping-stone on the path to health literacy.

With the support of NNLM Middle Atlantic Region, All of Us funding and a partnership with Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh is addressing this issue by meeting their residents at the intersection of digital literacy and health literacy. This project, “Connecting and Improving Digital Literacy & Health Literacy Outcomes in Public Housing,” is a collaborative effort that integrates National Library of Medicine and NIH health information resources into the housing authority’s existing programming.

Mobile Computing Lab

Because the housing authority has more than 20,000 residents in its 2,700 public housing units in Pittsburgh, outreach is a familiar and necessary aspect of serving these communities. To reach as many residents as possible, the authority must think creatively when developing outreach efforts. One such approach is the Mobile Computing Lab, an arm of the Computer Education and Training Program, which provides computer, printing and Internet access to residents in their buildings. Staffed by information technology staff, the lab is equipped with laptops, hotspots, and printers.

Connecting digital literacy and health literacy

Young. man helping elderly woman on computer

Once the housing authority recognized the potential of this lab as a natural crossroad between digital literacy and health literacy, they applied for NNLM funding to expand the program’s capacity in the following ways:

  • A part-time technology services intern was promoted to full-time Digital Literacy Specialist, increasing the availability of staff for one-on-one learning sessions.

  • Technology was purchased to reach more residents with each visit, and to ensure the devices and software used for teaching purposes remain current and relevant.

  • Housing authority staff attended workshops hosted by NNLM Middle Atlantic Region staff to gain familiarity with National Library of Medicine/NIH health information resources, such as MedlinePlus and developed ways to integrate them into mobile lab services.

These developments have given the housing authority an opportunity to reach more members of vulnerable populations — including senior citizens, immigrants and refugees — and to make sure every public housing resident has not just access to, but awareness of, reliable health information.

“Every day we have class centered on digital literacy to help our residents become self-sufficient by adding these skills to their everyday lifestyle,” said Jordan Owens, computer program assistant for the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. “Residents were also introduced to Medline Plus. This resource gives health information to senior residents who were the most interested in this because of the factual information provided on the website; other residents loved the healthy recipes provided. Overall, connecting and improving digital and health literacy in public housing has been a great experience.”

If your department has programs that could benefit underrepresented communities by incorporating health information resources, consider partnering with a local public library or community-based organization and applying for NNLM Middle Atlantic Region funding. Staff are available to answer questions about your project ideas

Tess Wilson is community engagement coordinator for the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, Middle Atlantic Region and a faculty member in Pitt’s Health Science Library System.