Libraries Saving Lives in the Opioid Crisis

Hands reaching out for support

McPherson Square Branch Library is one of 54 branches of the famous Free Library of Philadelphia. It is in a classically designed Carnegie building from the late 1800s north of downtown Philadelphia. The building is situated in McPherson Square Park, known locally as "needle park" because of heavy drug use there. As opioid overdoses mount, staff members at the public library have become first responders to literally save lives

The Free Library of Philadelphia

The Free Library of Philadelphia is one of the larger TechSoup for Libraries members. It is located in the city where the first lending library in the U.S. was started in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin. It is now the 13th-largest public library system in the United States, hosting nearly 6 million patrons in person and 10 million more online each year. The library has an astonishing roster of programs and services.

The Free Library of Philadelphia has gotten many Adobe product donations for applications like Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, and Acrobat, which the library uses to create outreach materials. They also use them in their Maker Jawn STEM Program. These are media labs in multiple locations to encourage kids, teens, and adults to use tech tools and everyday materials creatively for self-directed projects.

The McPherson Square branch recently became one of the library's most talked-about locations thanks to stories about its employees' lifesaving work in the heart of a drug-infested part of the city. They have been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer, NPR, CNN, and American Libraries, among many others.

The Worst Drug Crisis in American History

This year, the New York Times declared the opioid epidemic to be the worst drug crisis in American history. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (PDF), the opioid crisis has been mounting since the late 1990s. Overdose deaths from prescription drugs like OxyContin, fentanyl, and heroin have now reached epidemic levels. Deaths from opioid overdoses nationally now exceed deaths from auto accidents or guns. The opioid epidemic killed more than 33,000 people in 2015 alone. Philadelphia is one of many cities hard hit by the epidemic, especially the neighborhoods in north Philly.

Judi Moore

Why the Philadelphia Librarians Became First Responders

According to Judi Moore, the McPherson Square branch's library supervisor and children's librarian, our neighborhood has always had drug use. Somehow drug tourists from different places around the country started coming to McPherson Square Park because of its reputation for having the best drugs in country. People started camping in the park and taking it over. It started to be called 'heroin village.'

The campers started using the library reading rooms and bathrooms. Up until last year, Judi Moore recalls just one overdose in the library, but then it got worse. Much worse. By late last year, the drug use and overdoses in the library became common. She recalls that people were flushing needles down the toilet, clogging up the plumbing. She arranged a partnership with a local charity to supply volunteer bathroom monitors to check on all patrons using the restrooms. She also devised overdose drills for staff.

Here is how it happened.

The first time we had an overdose in our bathroom, we were kind of in panic mode. Then we sat down and talked over the things that had to be done in such a situation — call 911, someone go out to see if the police are in the park, someone take the children out of sight of the event, etc. The next time it happened, we handled it so much better. We probably should have had a drill like this long ago because we are now prepared in case of any type of medical emergency. We call it a NARCAN drill.

NARCAN nasal spray

First Responder Training

The situation was so bad that Judi Moore and some library employees decided to take a training class with a nonprofit needle exchange. Prevention Point Philadelphia showed them how to administer NARCAN, a nasal spray version of the drug naloxone that quickly reverses the effects of opioid overdoses. It is one of the lifesaving medicines for first responders in the epidemic. She told me, The situation got so horrible that we decided we must get NARCAN training when someone overdoses. My supervisor said to just go ahead. We can't watch people die. It was controversial inside the library system then, but not anymore.

Branch librarian for teen and adult enrichment programs Chera Kowalski has become the media star for librarians as first responders in the opioid epidemic. Judi Moore says that Chera has saved six lives so far. She now routinely scans the library stacks for signs of overdosing and knows exactly what to do when someone is in trouble. The Free Library of Philadelphia now has NARCAN kits on hand. Each kit costs $75.

Judi Moore's Recommendations

  • Because the opioid epidemic is everywhere, libraries across the country must be ready. Prepare in advance for an overdose.
  • Library staff should get NARCAN training and have it on hand. As a nasal spray there is no injecting, and it is often safe to use even if it is a false alarm. It doesn't even require a prescription in Canada.
  • In overdoses you may have just seconds to save a person.
  • Educate yourself on the opioid crisis.
  • Follow the library's lead in giving NARCAN trainings to the public. They have been very well attended.

Additional Information

If you have experience with the opioid crisis in your library, please tell us your experience in the comments below.

Image 2: Judi Moore