Regional Medical Libraries Making a Difference: Focus on Pacific Northwest Region

Map of 8 Regional Medical LibrariesNo matter where they live or work, health professionals, researchers and the public can access information from the National Library of Medicine thanks to its National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM), consisting of more than 6,000 libraries coordinated by the NLM and supported by eight Regional Medical Libraries (RMLs). NLM In Focus is showcasing the libraries awarded contracts to serve as RMLs for 2011-2016.  In this article we introduce you to the people and projects of the Pacific Northwest Region.

From the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean and north to Alaska, the Pacific Northwest Region offers great natural beauty and large tracts of open space. Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Washington comprise 27 percent of the land mass of the United States and, as of the 2012 estimated US Census, less than 4.5 percent of its population. Spread across this region are “frontier” and rural populations in remote areas far from the two major metropolitan areas—Seattle and Portland. Anchorage, the third most populous city in the region with 374,000 residents anchors the north.

Panoramic view of Seattle

Seattle is home to the Pacific Northwest Region’s Regional Medical Library. (Courtesy UW Community Photos)


From its home at the University of Washington Health Sciences Library in Seattle, the RML for the Pacific Northwest Region supports 11 regional resource libraries, 182 hospital and academic libraries, 32 public libraries and 162 community-based, government, social service and other types of organizations all spread across a vast area. NLM In Focus spoke recently with its Director, Tania Bardyn, and Associate Director Cathy Burroughs.

NLM In Focus: What makes your region unique and interesting?

Dog sled team in the Alaskan wilderness

The Pacific Northwest Region extends to Alaska, with its arctic lands and towering mountain ranges. (Courtesy National Network of Libraries of Medicine, Pacific Northwest Region)

We serve a region known for its scenic beauty, diverse climates—from arctic to arid–and towering mountains, from the Olympics to the Rockies to Alaska’s 39 mountain ranges including 17 of the highest peaks in the United States. Of all the regions, we are first in land mass and one of the smallest in network members. It’s a region rich in agricultural, horticultural, and natural science research. Open space and farmland preservation in an urbanizing environment is a key issue.

In our large, sparsely populated region, there is limited access to services and resources.  For instance, a family in Montana had to move hundreds of miles to Billings, the largest nearby city, so that a member could receive kidney dialysis. There was no other available option. That is why as much as possible, we try to connect rural practitioners to a medical library’s resources to support their decisions about treatment and other health issues.

It is essential to our network that members have the staff and capacity to conduct outreach in their communities. Since we are very familiar with our members (because there are few of them), we can comfortably refer people to someone local, when possible. Although our members are widely dispersed geographically, we keep in regular touch through our blog, a listserv, Facebook and Twitter. When possible, we also visit them at their sites.

The Pacific Northwest states have higher percentages of Native Americans and Alaska Natives than the national average of 1 percent. Alaska, alone, has 15.3 percent. Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and Latino populations are expanding in our region, too.

We have the highest percentage of tribal libraries in the country. The RML is affiliated with the Tribal College Librarians Professional Development Institute. Hosted by the Montana State University Libraries since 1990, this is an annual, week-long program of continuing education, professional development and networking opportunities for tribal college librarians and librarians serving tribal college students.

NLM In Focus: Are there challenges specific to your region? If so, how have you overcome them?

The sheer distances are a challenge. We travel far and wide to build personal relationships with librarians in their own communities, to get them comfortable with the questions and requests they’ll encounter in outreaching. We’ve helped librarians at a cattle-branding gathering in Montana, and trekked to the town of North Pole, Alaska, with local medical librarians.

Online communication is very important to us, too. Our blog, Dragonfly, offers topical news and information, as well as in-depth articles. In Native American folklore, the dragonfly, often carved on totem poles, is the messenger. So our Dragonfly is recognized by network members and friends as the bearer of good health information.

We also conduct online conferences, Webcasts, and distance-learning classes. We began using Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools in 2010 and today count hundreds of regular fans and followers of our health-related information. Our Twitter feeds feature current health items of interest to our region. We also tweet links to our Dragonfly blog posts, and conduct Twitter chats moderated by PNR staff.

Since effective communication is a two-way street, we participate in state and regional Network meetings, and connect with individual members via the telephone and email either to help them or have them help us.

NLM in Focus: What are your proudest accomplishments?

We have several regional energy and technology hubs—in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington, and in Portland and Anchorage, so we work hard to stay on top of emerging issues. For example, we promote cross-institutional and regional collaboration in data services and mobile technology with our academic health sciences and research library colleagues.

In 2013, institutions in Utah, Oregon and Washington co-hosted “The Research Lifecycle,” an interactive forum about eScience, which was a big success. We are particularly interested in helping our Network members to identify and develop programs to meet the challenges in data services and mobile technology within the clinical and community-based learning communities.

We are also interested in improving methods for assessing the impact of health information on medical education, innovations in health literacy, meeting the information needs of the public health workforce and health professionals, and fostering the use of mobile devices in hospitals and clinics.

NLM In Focus: Tell us about your recent community outreach projects.

We develop and maintain relationships with the healthcare and public health workforce along with the social service, community, faith-based, and/or volunteer organizations serving Alaskan Natives, American Indians, Hispanics, seniors, low income and rural populations. Faith-based community nurses are logical collaborators because, along with the spiritual support, their focus is on education, wellness, and prevention. Our partners help us identify priority health topics and audiences for train-the-trainer programs, which the partners then distribute to underserved groups.

A core principle of our alliance-building is that our partners can be the champions who make health literacy, patient engagement or evidence-based practice count in the groups, communities or professions they reach. For example, Gail Kouame, one of our outreach coordinators, helped inmates in a county detention center in Montana improve their health literacy and health-decision making, including how to access NLM’s and other resources.

We have developed training videos for home visitor program staffers, who have limited time and resources, to familiarize them with accessing NLM resources to help promote health literacy.

Healing Totem

The top of the healing totem depicts the Algonquin story of the Medicine Woman in the Moon. The healing totem was carved from a tree in Washington. (Courtesy JSA Photography.)

As a follow-up to NLM’s  exhibition, Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness, we funded development of health information resources by several tribal organizations across their communities. The exhibition depicts Native knowledge and beliefs about health and illness, and featured a healing totem carved by Jewell James, a member of the Lummi Indian Nation, just north of us along the coast, near Bellingham.

Assisting communities with limited resources is a big part of our community outreach.  As budgets permit, the staff travels to state and regional conferences to exhibit and offer trainings. But because it’s so costly, we’ve made it a priority to deliver more educational content via distance learning. Also, we partner Northwest Regional Primary Care Association, the Northwest Center for Public Health Practice and other organizations with established connections with rural health centers.

And, of course, we look to our resource libraries and network members for their assistance in outreach. We have funded libraries at the Oregon Health & Science University, Montana State University-Bozeman, and elsewhere to conduct training sessions and present exhibits at their public and tribal librarian meetings, as well as at health professional and public health conferences in Montana and Oregon.

We work with the Alaska Medical Library (AML) at University of Alaska Anchorage to fund a half-time librarian’s travel to promote health information access. Outreach is directed at seven Indian Health Service-funded hospitals and health practitioners across the state via in-person instruction and online learning.

Alaska is so large and sparsely populated that most communities are off the road system, so reaching out takes creativity and collaboration. The AML librarian has some vivid tales of travel by bush plane, when you’re at the mercy of the weather! However remote the facility, outreach session participants invariably express surprise and delight on learning how easily they can access quality health information.

For instance, the Nome, Alaska, hospital’s recruitment and staffing manager feels strongly that library orientation helps significantly with retention. And Dillingham’s public health nurse (who also is the high school’s nurse) is ecstatic about the health resources available for teens.

NLM in Focus:  How has technology affected your work?

Tweeting, blogging, and monthly webinars help us stay in touch, promote outreach and research activities, and build a strong professional network across a very large, rural, and sparsely populated five-state region.

NLM in Focus: Any Further Thoughts About Your Region and the Work You Do?

We serve a forward thinking, innovative region where medical libraries quickly adapt to new technologies for service and outreach. The participation of college libraries, public libraries, and other libraries with significant collections or interest in health and biomedical research, and many non-library organizations all help to promote and improve the public’s health.  Our programs and services support all of these groups and help to improve patient care, enhanced research, and healthy communities.

Pacific Northwest Region Staff Photo

Pacific Northwest Region Staff 2013 (front row, left to right) Mahria Lebow, Maddie Romansic, Tania Bardyn, Susan Meyers; (back row, left to right) Gail Kouame, Nikki Dettmar, Patricia Devine, Cathy Burroughs


by Thomas Conuel, NLM in Focus writer