LIBRARIES have always been seen as places where you have to keep quiet.

But now visitors are being told they shouldn’t be afraid to speak up if they want to improve their health and wellbeing.

As part of a scheme called Making Every Contact Count (MECC), some staff in the county’s libraries have been trained to help turn conversations with customers into constructive lifestyle support as part of a pilot project.

Sections dedicated to health have been supplemented with leaflets promoting wellbeing and healthy choices, in an effort to make people turn to libraries to improve their lifestyle.

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The pilot project has been spearheaded by Oxfordshire County Council’s Public Health team, which seeks to promote, improve and protect the health of local people. This is part of the council’s commitment to thriving communities, helping people live safe, healthy lives and play an active part in their community.

Staff from a dozen libraries have been engaged in the MECC pilot, which is now being evaluated to see how it can be rolled out across the network of 43 libraries.

Kate Austin, a health improvement practitioner in the Public Health team, explained: “We’ve worked really closely with the library service, putting together how this project might work.

“It’s about giving staff the skills and confidence to have conversations which might encourage people to make changes to their lifestyles to improve health.

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“These are opportunist conversations and being ready to respond and signpost if people do come to you. It’s been great to work with the library service on this project and we’ve learnt a lot.”

The pilot has been funded by a grant of just under £10,000 from Health Education England Thames Valley.

Staff from Abingdon, Banbury, Benson, Bicester, Blackbird Leys, Botley, County, Cowley, Didcot, Kidlington, Wantage and Witney libraries took part to test the training model.

This included an eLearning course and a workshop delivered in partnership with Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust.

Ms Austin said libraries were now thinking about other ways they can encourage health and are planning health awareness activities between now and the end of May.

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At Bicester, staff are thinking about creating a ‘knit and natter’ group to help address loneliness and isolation, while at Didcot they are considering promoting National Walking Month.

She said: “We’ve been trying to raise awareness of Public Health within the library and this is a good example of it starting to work."

Library staff are often drawn into conversation with customers. If library users want to change their lifestyle, staff have been given the skills to point them in the right direction to seek help.

This might be through the council’s Live Well Oxfordshire website, a mental health charity, or a stop smoking group – or other services and health and wellbeing support networks.

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MECC has been rolled out by Health Education England nationally as a tool for behaviour change.

It states: “MECC uses the millions of day-to-day interactions that organisations and people have with other people to support them in making positive changes to their physical and mental health and wellbeing.”

Kim Kearney, group library manager for Abingdon, said she had already seen the value of the project, both on a work and personal level.

She said: “As well as talking to our customers and signposting to where they can get support, we’ve also been encouraging staff to talk to each other and their families.

“The workshop talked about the causes of diseases and how you can reduce your risk of developing heart disease, cancer and other diseases by making changes to your lifestyle.

“In my own personal life, my partner and I have made changes to our diet. It has inspired me and motivated me to plan more meals, drink more sensibly and live more healthily.

“I’ve also had conversations with friends who are looking to give up smoking. Before I would have said ‘good for you’. Now I’m a lot more confident about signposting them to where they can go for help.”

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One member of her team directed a customer to the mental health charity Oxfordshire Mind after a conversation. The customer later returned to the library to thank the staff member.

Ms Kearney said: “Doing MECC created a real spark and as a result we’ve been widening our focus on health. We’re now in contact with local organisations such as Healthy Abingdon and helping Abingdon Lions promote its Message In The Bottle scheme.

“We’re just showing people the resources available if they show an interest. Why wouldn’t we do that? It’s an extension of what staff do.”

Simon Lay, library operations manager (branch network), said the link-up with Public Health was a great example of joint-working across county council services.

He said: “MECC is the perfect fit for the library service. If staff can help to encourage people to make healthy lifestyle choices, that can only be a good thing."