What can’t librarians do? Many now are becoming health insurance guides.

The buzz at the American Library Association’s winter meeting recently wasn’t just about the annual awards (a.k.a. the book award “Super Bowl”); the Affordable Care Act also was on the agenda. Libraries across the country have been trying to meet a growing demand for health insurance information.

At the Free Library of Philadelphia’s central branch, library coordinator Nani Manion has started running twice-weekly enrollment clinics in the technology lab. Manion is one of 33 librarians in the Philly system who have undergone a five-hour training session to become certified application counselors.

At least through March, 12 library locations in Philadelphia are taking individual sign-up appointments or hosting these walk-in sessions. The library cites data estimating 210,000 Philadelphia residents lack health insurance.

“It started off slow,” Manion said, but the pace has picked up. One recent day, six people showed up for help. That might not seem like a lot, but the process for some individuals took nearly two hours. “I could have used more assistance,” she said.

The added service means trade-offs. While Manion conducts sessions, another computer class is on hold.

Last summer, the Free Library’s director, Siobhan Reardon, issued a system-wide request for librarians who were interested in the training.

“Our role here in library land has been changing rapid-fire,” Reardon said. “The trail into getting insurance is not a neatly designed trail, and so there’s nothing better than a librarian to help navigate.”

Key sources

Libraries have always been more than book lenders, providing services that include early childhood education, employment assistance and computer literacy skills. The economic downturn heightened the need for those services, and health information has long been in demand.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services estimates 28 million people sought health information from libraries in one year.

Last summer, IMLS issued a $286,104 grant to craft webinars geared toward librarians. More than 1,000 have participated since that launched, said Mamie Bittner, director of government affairs for IMLS.

“There are pressures on libraries ... but meeting the high priority information needs of their community, that is their job,” she said.

‘We saw an influx’

Bittner said libraries all over “are assuming a variety of roles” as it relates to the Affordable Care Act. In Delaware, state librarian Annie Norman said they’ve been thirsty for useful, accurate information so they can best assist patrons.

“We saw such an influx of people needing job assistance, that when this big health care initiative was coming in, we thought ‘They’re going to be coming in – 35,000 people could be on our doorstep with questions,’ so we wanted to be prepared to help them,” Norman said.

The system first turned to the state, which is running the health care marketplace in partnership with the federal government. Libraries in Delaware have since hosted more than three dozen public events.

Navigators, or federally certified application helpers, have used library space to meet with people and assist them with enrollment.

Norman said they haven’t seen the influx of people they had initially expected, but they also are tracking the questions – 300 so far – people have, so they can better respond to insurance questions in the future.

“We’re laying the foundation for years to come,” said Cathay Keough, coordinator of reference services for Delaware’s Division of Libraries.

• This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes WHYY, NPR and Kaiser Health News. KHN is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communications organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.