What Does a Library Have to Do with Disasters?

DIMRC labWhen you think of the people and places that help when disaster strikes, you may not immediately think of librarians and libraries. But they can play an important role.

Recognizing the untapped potential of libraries, the National Library of Medicine created a Disaster Information Management Research Center (DIMRC) in 2008. The Center is part of the Library’s division of Specialized Information Services (SIS), but the effort involves people throughout NLM and the National Network of Libraries of Medicine.

“Many people think a library just gives out books, but it’s really a source of information,” says Steven Phillips, MD, NLM Associate Director, SIS.  The Center’s goal, he explains, is to provide information and resources that people view as “just what I need, just in time.”

After the earthquake in Haiti, for example, DIMRC quickly put together a Haiti Earthquake Web page filled with links tailored to the people responding to the disaster—including information in Haitian Creole. Information was pumped out on a listserv to a growing number of librarians and health professionals. DIMRC staff gave special guidance to librarians at two university hospitals who were preparing information for their medical teams heading to Haiti. And, the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications created a Haiti Earthquake People Locator—a Web site to help reunite families—with an iPhone application to submit information to the Web site as well. It was NLM’s first iPhone app.

That’s just a sampling of what unfolded throughout NLM in the hours, days, and weeks after the earthquake. But DIMRC is about much more than response.

“We focus on all phases of a disaster,” explains Stacey Arnesen, who heads DIMRC and its staff of seven. “People need to have access to the right information at the right time to make decisions and set policy concerning preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation.”

DIMRC was created to help the federal government’s disaster efforts by providing information and resources—serving as an information hub—for public health officials, healthcare providers, and the general public. The Center coordinates all of the disaster-related activities throughout NLM including:

  • collecting, organizing, and disseminating health information for any type of disaster—natural, accidental, or deliberate
  • developing online disaster information tools
  • training librarians to serve as “disaster information specialists”
  • planning and training to ensure that during a disaster operations continue at NLM, its eight regional medical libraries, and the 5,800 libraries that are part of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine
  • conducting informatics research to explore and develop new and better ways to communicate, access information, and share information during disasters and emergencies
  • collaborating with other federal, state and local government agencies

The creation of DIMRC is the latest chapter in NLM’s long history of providing information and resources during disasters. After the gas leak in Bhopal, India in 1984, NLM provided toxicology information. When Hurricane Mitch caused devastation in 1998, NLM joined the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to improve the health information infrastructure in Central America. After the September 11 attacks, the NLM National Center for Biotechnology Information devised software to rapidly analyze poor quality DNA samples to help identify  victims’ remains.

“NLM is a unique library,” says Arnesen, explaining why a disaster center is a natural fit here. NLM has a wealth of information, and it conducts bioinformatics research—using computers and communications technology in biology, medicine, and health. “We can look at major issues facing people who deal with disasters and develop new tools to help.”

How can hospitals work together and communicate and share information during a major disaster?  How can hospitals keep better track of patients during a disaster and help families find their loved ones? DIMRC is coordinating nearly a dozen research projects to answer those questions. The projects are part the Bethesda Hospitals’ Emergency Preparedness Partnership. The partnership consists of the NLM and three hospitals within a few miles of each other—the National Naval Medical Center, the NIH Clinical Center, and a community hospital, Suburban Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Another unique aspect of NLM that helps in its disaster work is the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, which is a program coordinated by NLM. “It’s a no-brainer,” says Phillips. “You have an existing network of about 5,800 libraries that can help pass information back and forth.”

Elizabeth Norton, a librarian in DIMRC, notes that recent events show us “it’s not if, but when, a disaster will occur. Whether it’s local, national, or international, there’s always a need for information.”

Photo Caption: Stacey Arnesen and Victor Cid in the DIMRC lab

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles exploring the role of libraries and librarians in disasters.