Libraries are a lifeline for vulnerable populations.

We learned this straightforward, valuable lesson by listening carefully to our research participant, Brandon Stokes. Brandon told us about the many challenges he faced while growing up homeless. He also taught us how he coped. For him, the Free Library of Philadelphia was a refuge, offering a safe place to spend the day while the youth shelter was closed. Brandon often spent hours in the library, devouring biographies of great leaders. He searched those books for the male role models who were missing from his life. In their stories of adversity and triumph, Brandon found lessons for life.

Today, Brandon is on a promising path. He is a student and an activist, and he is building a network of social entrepreneurs in Philadelphia and beyond. In this work, the Free Library of Philadelphia is still playing a critical role, offering a meetup space for like-minded go-getters who share the combined ambitions of business and social impact.

We are inspired by Brandon, and we are grateful to him—and to many other research participants over the years—for telling us their own stories of adversity, resilience, and health in the city. Brandon’s example offered us a call to action, showing us how public libraries are places of hope and possibility.

Today, we are committed to making libraries even stronger as “health hubs.” We are working closely with the Free Library of Philadelphia to optimize staff trainings, services, and programs that meet the health and social needs of diverse Philadelphia residents. We see this as one step in a national conversation about how we can strengthen public libraries and connect them to health institutions, in order to improve population health. We welcome your stories and your input. Let us know how your public library is working to meet the needs of vulnerable populations. Contact us at

To read more about Brandon and about our team’s research on youth homelessness, see Cannuscio et. al, The Life Stories of Homeless Youths. AJPH, November 2015 (105): 2216-2219.

Post by Carolyn Cannusio.
Photograph by Nema Etebar.