Library Roles in Disaster Response: An Oral History Project by the National Library of Medicine*[dagger]

Article excerpt

Objectives: To develop a knowledgebase of stories illustrating the variety of roles that librarians can assume in emergency and disaster planning, preparedness, response, and recovery, the National Library of Medicine conducted an oral history project during the summer of 2007. The history aimed to describe clearly and compellingly the activities-both expected and unusual-that librarians performed during and in the aftermath of the disasters. While various types of libraries were included in interviews, the overall focus of the project was on elucidating roles for medical libraries.

Methods: Using four broad questions as the basis for telephone and email interviews, the investigators recorded the stories of twenty-three North American librarians who responded to bombings and other acts of terrorism, earthquakes, epidemics, fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornados.

Results: Through the process of conducting the oral history, an understanding of multiple roles for libraries in disaster response emerged. The roles fit into eight categories: institutional supporters, collection managers, information disseminators, internal planners, community supporters, government partners, educators and trainers, and information community builders.

Conclusions: Librarians-particularly health sciences librarians-made significant contributions to preparedness and recovery activities surrounding recent disasters. Lessons learned from the oral history project increased understanding of and underscored the value of collaborative relationships between libraries and local, state, and federal disaster management agencies and organizations.


The US National Library of Medicine's (NLM's) Library Roles in Disasters Project (LRDP) evolved out of a recognition of the many roles that librarians have played in emergency and disaster plarining, response, and recovery. It is difficult to ascertain, however, if librarians have recently adopted roles in community-wide disaster response or if their efforts have been longstanding. Literature addressing library disaster planning has primarily focused on collection restoration and protection efforts [I]. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, a notable exception occurred when the library community credited the efforts of public libraries acting as community crisis centers following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks [2]. Recognition in the United States grew again after the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, when researchers and reporters gradually recognized the essential functions that libraries performed in disaster response. Public libraries gained attention for helping people who needed Internet access to fill out Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) forms and other online applications or declarations [2-7]. Other reports discussed librarians' work in evacuation shelters, bringing books and needed reference materials [8, 9]. Health sciences libraries and librarians also received credit for providing reference service in the aftermath of a disaster [8]. Anecdotal evidence and word of mouth, however, suggested that librarians did much more than provide reference service and help fill out forms.

By providing relief awards, NLM and the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM) supported the organized efforts of librarians and other information professionals to provide needed outreach [10-12]. Other libraries, working with emergency agencies and community groups, offered assistance services through library-run call centers and hotlines [2, 9, 13]. Librarians with knowledge of preservation methods rushed to the aid of other institutions to salvage damaged collections [14]. Informal discussions with NLM and NN/LM focused on stories of librarians volunteering at evacuation shelters, where they distributed books, provided reference services, and even set up entire stand-alone libraries. Other stories told of librarians quickly reestablishing services to their hospitals, universities, and communities, even after losing staff members, collections, buildings, electricity, Internet and telephone service, or plumbing. …