Role of Rural Libraries in Promoting Physical Activity: Interview with Noah Lenstra

by Christiaan Abildso, PhD

“When a librarian gets involved, you don’t know what’s going to happen. But you know something good is gonna happen.”

In the fourth episode of Views from the Front Porch, my guest is Dr. Noah Lenstra, Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Noah approaches rural physical activity using his expertise in library sciences and his personal upbringing in a town of about 3,000 people in northwestern Illinois that, like many rural places, suffers from health disparities in chronic diseases. Noah loves running – something he started when he was doing his dissertation in his late 20s. Hiking, however is his true love, bringing meaning to his life. As a result of all of this personal and professional experience “seeing what libraries have always done in rural America, which is lend a hand. When communities have a need, libraries step up to meet it,” he’s now focused on understanding how public libraries support health and wellness in their communities.

Libraries Step Up to Meet Community Needs

Noah has answered the Rural Active Living Call to Action paper led by Dr. Renée Umstattd Meyer published by the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice in 2016 in multiple ways. Noah’s recent work with colleagues across the US addresses one call to action to “utilize qualitative studies to better identify and characterize the unique influential variables in rural environments.” The purpose of the work, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and led by Dr. Ellen Rubenstein at the University of Oklahoma is to understand the current practices of 16 small and rural libraries in Michigan, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Vermont to address health and wellness through public programs. Key goals are to identify and disseminate best practices of libraries. Qualitative data have been useful in understanding the complexity and unpredictability of programming by libraries in rural places. In one story from rural eastern North Carolina “that could itself be a novel,” Noah learned how a small program using pedometers turned into policy to allow city employees paid walking breaks and built environment changes by using donated land for a disc golf course based on community needs. It truly is a great story worth listening to. (Starts at ~6:45 of the video below.)

For those of us that work in rural places, hearing about Noah’s work was a palm-to-forehead moment. Of course, libraries! They’re even more ubiquitous than Dairy Queens in rural America! This is a great example of finding a ubiquitous facility in rural places and using it as a physical activity behavior setting – addressing our call to action to “use ecological models such as Sallis and colleagues to guide the establishment of a rural-specific evidence base.” In starting Let’s Move in Libraries in 2016, Noah began to catalogue (pun intended) the ways that libraries are promoting physical activity and healthy eating and facilitate peer-to-peer learning. In a 2018 manuscript, Noah described the efforts to map the ongoing efforts in public libraries and how to evaluate the impact of this programming. He’s now looking at diffusion of innovation and how the library workforce is absorbing these ideas into professional practice. Some of the qualitative data he’s collecting now will help inform a future impact evaluation of these library efforts.

Listen to the Podcast Here:

As the movement has matured, Noah has shifted his focus to identify new partners such as parks and recreation and co-operative extension, and create resources to support the 2500 subscribers to the Let’s Move monthly newsletter. Noah’s advice for the rural physical activity research community: talk to your local librarian! There are nearly 17,000 central and branch libraries in the US that are “idiosyncratically local institutions,” according to Noah. Nearly half of these are in rural places and ¾ of them serve a population area of fewer than 25,000 people! There are also state-level conferences of libraries with Let’s Move presentations in many states and Noah sees a lot of local creativity starting to bubble up to the state- and national-levels. It’s a perfect example of creative PSE change in rural areas to affect physical activity outcomes!

Source: 2016 Public Libraries Survey*. Click image to visit site.

*Table N-1 uses “locale” definition from US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which classifies a territory into four major categories: city, suburb, town, and rural. (See page 3 of the PLS report for details.)

As I reflect on the chat with Noah, I am amazed at all the work he and his colleagues are doing to facilitate PSE changes and programming via the Let’s Move in Libraries program. I am also amazed at how much our public libraries do and what a great asset they are in rural communities! Just like co-operative extension, health departments, and schools, libraries are very trusted rural institutions and an emerging partner for physical activity programming. I am confident that the PSE changes that Noah and his colleagues are working on will result in novel partnerships for rural physical activity researchers throughout the US. When in doubt, contact your local librarian – they get things done!

P.S. Let’s Move in Libraries is all over social media. I highly recommend you follow Noah or Let’s Move in Libraries on Twitter!

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Christiaan Abildso, PhD

Dr. Christiaan Abildso is an associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavior Sciences in the West Virginia University School of Public Health in Morgantown, WV where he’s lived since 2004 with his wife and two children since. His research interests include health promotion program evaluation and social-ecological determinants of physical activity, including policy and the built environment. Dr. Abildso has multiple peer-reviewed publications about rail-trails, health impact assessment, physical activity planning, and evaluation of state-level health promotion programming. Christiaan is also active in local and state active transportation policy decisions, pedestrian and bicyclist safety, and national research on physical activity in rural areas. When not in the office, you’ll usually find him riding his bike (very safely) on the beautiful trails and country roads of West Virginia.