Librarians' Newest Skill Underscores The Heroic Roles They Play In Communities

Libraries have become a common site of overdose.

Most people go to libraries to check out books, study or get free Internet access, but in recent years, many have also flocked to the bathrooms behind the bookshelves to shoot up.

A new CNN report dives into the opioid epidemic gripping America and how it's affecting libraries in Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Tragically, these places that have long served as safe spaces for the homeless and needy during the day are now turning into popular spots to use drugs like heroin and Fentanyl. 

In response, many librarians are now being trained on how to use the drug naloxone, which is a fast-acting antidote to opioid overdoses. 


Known as Narcan, the life-saving drug is becoming more common on police forces and amongst Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). Some Narcan kits are even available at concerts or in schools. Miami-Dade County, which has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, just approved a program to distribute free Narcan kits and training to Miami residents. 

On Sunday, a police officer in Ohio was treated for opioid overdose with Narcan after accidentally coming in contact with an unknown substance at a crime scene. The drug Fentanyl, which some experts say is 50 times more powerful than heroin, recently caused another Ohio police officer to overdose after he merely made skin contact with the drug. He was saved by Narcan.

"We have to figure out quickly the critical steps that people have to take so we can be partners in the solution of this problem," Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association, told CNN.

In June, The Philadelphia Inquirer printed an account of a McPherson Square Branch librarian's heroism during a columnist's visit to a local park. Alerted by a security guard to a user's overdose while she was at work, Chera Kowalski flew to her side, and administered Narcan, likely saving her life. She then held her into the recovery position, per her training, until medical professionals arrived on the scene.

Without the librarian's intervention, it's possible that things may have turned out differently.

The McPherson Square Branch library in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood, where Kowalski works. The Davidt8 / Wikimedia Foundation.

Along with training librarians and the addition of Narcan kits, libraries like the McPherson Square Branch Library have taken other steps. There, they've instituted an ID policy to use the bathroom and hired monitors to record names on a log. After a half dozen overdoses in the bathroom over an 18-month span, and a three-day closure when needles clogged the pipes, monitors began enforcing a five-minute time limit on bathroom use.

Some libraries have also increased police foot patrol.

There is some hope, though. For the first time since the opioid crisis began, the number of prescriptions written for opioids by health care workers dropped between 2012 and 2015. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that prescriptions went down 13.1 percent during that time, from 81.2 per 100 people to 70.6 per 100 people.

Still, the rate of opioid prescription is three times what it was in 1999, a frightening statistic when you consider how addictive opioids are and how often prescription pain medication leads to overdose both from the medications themselves and cheaper alternatives like heroin or fentanyl. 

As libraries continue to pursue creative solutions, so too is the United States government. President Donald Trump and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie committed to forming a new opioid commission in March and hosted a roundtable discussion with lawmakers and former addicts. 

In December, Congress passed the 21s Century Cures Act, which allocated more than $1 billion to the National Institute of Health in an effort to boost addiction treatment.

Cover photo: Shutterstock / ChameleonsEye


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