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Inspiring People in our Region: Gwen Johnson, Greenville County Library System, Greenville, SC

Posted by on November 29th, 2011 Posted in: Advocacy

 Gwen Johnson

”Be ready to drop any part of the project plan that doesn’t work and focus on the parts that do.”               

Gwen Johnson
Information Services Manager
Greenville County Library System (GCLS)
Greenville, South Carolina

What is your position? 

I am Information Services Manager for the Greenville County Library System (GCLS) in South Carolina. In this role, I supervise staff who provide reference service, interlibrary loan service, classes or workshops, collection development, assistance in the technology center and library programs for adults.

Is there something in your own personal story that led you to do the work you do?

I grew up in a small rural town in Alabama that had no public library that I could use.  The small collection of books in the  library of the school that I attended until I went away to college was old, unattractive and, with the exception of a few books used for reference, almost never touched. I was aware that many of the adults and children in my community did not have books in their homes and had no feeling of kinship with libraries.  This probably explains my longtime awareness of the need to establish ties with certain groups in the community to show how the library relates to their lives, especially those who feel most disenfranchised but whose need of library services is most acute.

What do you love most about your outreach work?

Connecting people with their heart’s desire is the most enjoyable part of what I do.

What is the biggest challenge in what you do?

Surprisingly, many people do not think of the library as a source of knowledge, assistance and pleasure.  In fact, there are individuals of both limited means and considerable means who could benefit greatly from the services and resources that the library provides who do not know of these services and resources and seem to assume that whatever the library does, it is for someone else, not them.  Getting the attention of these individuals and convincing them that the services and resources of the library can greatly enrich their lives and enhance their well-being is the challenge.

What has been the most fulfilling part of your work in terms of health outreach to your community’s underserved populations?

Most fulfilling has been the response of individuals in the groups involved in the Senior Health Information Project to the idea that the library would assist them in their acquisition of information they could use to improve their health and well being. As a group, they were welcoming, engaging and willing to pursue further explorations with the library.  Some arranged with library staff for classes to help them improve their computer skills after our initial contact.  Others made trips to the main library as a group to become more acquainted with the resources there.

What do you see as the biggest health concerns in the communities you serve?

Greenville County residents are plagued by cancer, cardiovascular disease, COPD, metabolic syndrome and other chronic conditions that affect people throughout the state and nation and have a need for the means to address those conditions.  One of my concerns as relates to this need is that many of those affected lack sufficient health literacy or easy access to reliable health information.  I am convinced that more knowledge about healthful lifestyles, nutrition and the appropriate response to individual health issues would result in disease prevention, effective management of diagnosed ailments and more favorable health outcomes for many.

How did you first come to know NN/LM SE/A?

As librarians, we have always been aware of the National Library of Medicine and its importance to the national accumulation of medical knowledge.  Our involvement with the Hands on Health Go Local project implemented by the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina provided the opportunity to learn about the influence of NN/LM SE/A in sponsoring community health related projects in this area.  Most recently,  GCLS Executive Director, Bev James,  brought to the attention of staff the availability of funding for outreach consumer health projects through  NN/LM SE/A and we were able to have two of our projects funded through NN/LM SE/A awards.

In what ways has NN/LM SE/A  been of help to you?

Through an Express Outreach Project Award made to the Greenville County Library System in 2010, NN/LM SE/A provided the means to implement the library’s Senior Health Information Project (SHIP).  This award enabled library staff to travel to community centers throughout Greenville County, with the corporation of the Greenville city and county recreation departments, to introduce senior adults to electronic sources of reliable consumer health information with the goal of improving their health literacy and, ultimately, their health.  The laptops, LCD projector with screen, wireless printer and mobile Wi-Fi connectivity purchased with the awarded funds allowed staff to demonstrate useful online health resources and assist seniors with hands-on practice at centers in their local neighborhoods.  NN/LM SE/A staff also provided training to library staff to better prepare them to assist with health related questions from the public using MedlinePlus and NIH databases.  In addition to the award for SHIP, the library also received another NN/LM SE/A award which allowed staff to coordinate a well-attended community health fair in January 2011.

Can you share a success story about the impact of health outreach in your community? 

Impact was on many levels.  For example, on an individual level, during one of the SHIP practice sessions, a community center participant learned about dietary restrictions that were required by the medication that she had just started taking.  This was important to her as it allowed her to adjust her diet and safely continue her treatment.   Another participant who had some anxiety about the colonoscopy that he was scheduled to take the following morning had the opportunity to learn about the procedure on MedlinePlus, emphasizing the advantage of having useful health information at your fingertips. The surprise visit of a vanload of seniors who came to the library to get library cards after a SHIP presentation so that they could have access to subscription health databases showed that the presentation had an impact on their determination to make use of available resources. 

What advice would you give others who are interested in doing health outreach work in their communities?

I would advise those interested in outreach work to choose projects with worthwhile but manageable goals; to enlist assistance from community organizations with similar goals; and to be ready to drop any part of the project plan that doesn’t work and focus on the parts that do.

If you would like to share your story or suggest another person for our “Inspiring People” feature, please email Nancy Patterson:

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