Public Libraries and Well-being

Can public libraries contribute to individual and community well-being?

There are many definitions of well-being. The Canadian Index of Well-being has adopted the following as its working definition:

‘The presence of the highest possible quality of life in its full breadth of expression focused on but not necessarily exclusive to: good living standards; robust health; a sustainable environment; vital communities; an educated populace; balanced time use; high levels of democratic participation; access to and participation in leisure and culture.”

Participation in leisure and culture activities, whether arts, culture, or recreation, contributes to the well-being of individuals, communities and societies. The myriad of activities and opportunities that we pursue and enjoy today all contribute to our overall life satisfaction and quality of life. They help to define our lives, the meaning we derive from them, and ultimately our well-being.

This is true for all age groups and both genders. Participation in leisure and culture throughout one’s life promotes higher levels of life satisfaction and well-being into later life. There is also emerging evidence that leisure and culture can play an even greater role in improving the quality of life for marginalised groups, such as lower income groups, children and older adults living with disabilities, and minority populations.’

The Your Better Life Index provides international comparisons of well-being (life satisfaction) across 36 OECD countries. Measuring feelings can be very subjective, but is nonetheless a useful complement to more objective data when comparing quality of life across countries. Subjective data can provide a personal evaluation of an individual’s health, education, income, personal fulfillment and social conditions. Life satisfaction measures how people evaluate their life as a whole rather than their current feelings. It captures a reflective assessment of which life circumstances and conditions are important for subjective well-being.

Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Canada are among the top nine countries in the Your Better Life Index; Sweden, Denmark and Finland are also among the top 9 countries in terms of library membership; Canada is in 14th place:

 Well-beingMembership
Denmark34
Canada414
Sweden79
Finland93

This suggests that there may be a relationship between well-being and library membership. If public libraries are improving well-being, the challenge is to identify that contribution and evaluate it. We already know that on average people who read have better physical health, empathy and mental health. Frequent readers are more likely to be satisfied with life, happier and more successful.

Reading for as little as six minutes can reduce stress by 60%, slow down the heart beat, ease muscle tension and alter your state of mind. Reading is also good for others. For example, readers are more likely to help non-profit organisations: 82% of readers donate goods or money (compared to 66% of non-readers); 42% of readers volunteer (compared to 25% of non-readers). But how do we measure this impact?

Reading between the lines: the benefits of reading for pleasure (Billington, 2015) indicated the positive impact reading has on health and well being and how it reduces isolation. This research report explored the emotional, social and psychological benefits to adults of regular reading for pleasure.

The key findings include:

  • half of readers say that reading helps them sleep better;
  • regular readers reported fewer feelings of stress and depression than non-readers, and stronger feelings of relaxation from reading than from watching TV or engaging with social media;
  • reading creates a parallel world in which personal anxieties can recede, while also helping people to realize that the problems they experience are not theirs alone;
  • a fifth of respondents said reading helped them to feel less lonely;
  • readers have higher levels of self-esteem and a greater ability to cope with difficult situations.

The report concluded that:

readers feel happier about themselves and their lives; reading produces greater life satisfaction, enhances social connectedness and sense of community spirit; and helps protect against and even prepare for life difficulties.

Exploring the Longitudinal Relationship Between Arts Engagement and Health (Gordon-Nesbit, 2015) found that engaging with the arts and culture generally has a positive long-term effect on health and wellbeing. This research has uncovered evidence, stretching back a number of decades, which shows a significant association between engaging with the arts and longer lives better lived.

Under the auspices of the Cultural Value Project Dr. Gordon-Nesbitt has compiled an evidence base comprised of fifteen longitudinal studies. These international studies collectively suggest that attending high-quality cultural events has a beneficial impact upon a range of chronic diseases over time. This includes cancer, heart disease, dementia and obesity, with an inevitable knock-on effect upon life expectancy.

Many possible reasons for this positive association are speculated upon by the researchers brought together in this report – from increased social capital to physical and psychological responses. One of the most compelling potential explanations for any positive association observed between arts engagement and health comes from the field of epigenetics, specifically the idea that environmental enrichment (in this case, cultural activity) can cause certain harmful genes to be switched off, enabling health-protective effects to be communicated from one generation to the next.

So there is compelling, and mounting, evidence that public libraries are good for the health and well being of individuals and communities. Once this relationship between libraries and well being has been identified it can be embedded within the strategic objectives of the organization.

For example, one of the five key objectives in the Thunder Bay Public Library Strategic Plan 2014-2018 is to Foster Community Well-Being and Personal Growth. This will be achieved by a range of activities, including: provide resources for healthy, active living; support community work in environmental and cultural initiatives; and actively pursue programs and services that encourage interaction between members of the community.

John Pateman is the CEO / Chief Librarian of the Thunder Bay Public Library. The Open for All? column explores the nature of libraries and their commitment to openness.