Philly Librarians Begin Carrying Narcan To Fight Overdoses

By Keri Blakinger 05/23/17

The librarians partnered with a needle exchange program to learn how to properly administer the overdose antidote Narcan.

librarian stamping a book at her desk.

They shelve books, answer reference questions and oversee endless volumes of inventory. But in some parts of Philadelphia, librarians also stop overdoses. 

The McPherson Square Branch, a century-old building in a drug-infested corner of the City of Brotherly Love, was one of the first libraries in the area to start making regular use of Narcan, a drastic move made out of sheer necessity amid the burgeoning opioid epidemic. 

With a regional reputation for strong dope, last year the city found itself beset by a plague of “drug tourists,” young users traveling from other cities or even other states in search of a better high, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer

But for public libraries—with their public bathrooms—out-of-town drug users looking for a place to get high can be particularly problematic. That’s why longtime McPherson librarian Judi Moore decided to step outside of her usual book-minding role to figure out a way to help.

Until last year, Moore could only remember one overdose in her 30 years on the job. But then, suddenly, she found herself with a front-row seat to the opioid crisis. Since last summer’s uptick in heroin use, there have been four overdoses at McPherson.

At one point last year, Moore called 911 five times in one day. At first, she responded by posting bathroom rules designed to curb drug use. A sign dictated that adults leave an ID at the front desk and adhere to a five-minute time limit. 

But as the opioid epidemic continued to blossom, those nicely posted guidelines weren’t enough. So next, Moore started overdose drills. McPherson staff went over the key points—who calls 911, who handles the kids and who waits for paramedics.

Even so, the library needed a more proactive approach. So in March, Moore teamed up with library supervisor Marion Parkinson to offer Narcan training for their fellow bookworms. 

“We kind of very subversively did it,” Parkinson said. Quietly, before the library opened, the pair brought in the needle exchange program Prevention Point Philadelphia to demonstrate proper use of the anti-overdose drug to more than 20 north Philly librarians. 

“They had been wanting the training for a long time,” Parkinson said of the librarians. “It’s a very, very helpless feeling when someone is gasping for breath and you can’t do anything.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.