EMForum.org Presentation — July 13, 2011

The Role of Libraries and Librarians
in Disaster Risk Reduction and Response

John C. Scott
Founder, Center for Public Service Communications

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

This transcript contains references to slides which can be downloaded from http://www.emforum.org/vforum/library/disaster_roles.pdf
A video recording of the live session is available at
An audio podcast is available at

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: Good morning/afternoon everyone and welcome once again to EMForum.org. I am Amy Sebring and will serve as your Moderator today. We are very glad you could join us. For our newcomers, we will be providing some instructions as we go along so you can relax and participate with us.

Our topic today is "The Role of Libraries and Librarians in Disaster Risk Reduction and Response." There has been some interesting work going on in the library community the past couple of years and today we will learn about this valuable community resource. Please see related links to further information on today’s Background Page. Our speaker will also be sharing some additional links and I will get those posted on the Background Page later this afternoon.

[Slide 1]

Now it is my pleasure to introduce today’s guest: John C. Scott is founder of the Center for Public Service Communications and served as Senior Consultant to the National Library of Medicine on its development of a Disaster Information Management Research Center.

Over the years, John has provided consulting services to the private sector and numerous government agencies in the specialized field of applying telecommunications and information technologies to reduce health disparities, to improve health services to underserved and disenfranchised individuals and communities and to improve the collection and sharing of scientific, technical and community knowledge to reduce human vulnerability to natural hazards. Please see the Background Page for additional biographical details.

Welcome John, and thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today. I now turn the floor over to John to start us off please.


John Scott: Thank you, Amy. Good morning and afternoon to all. I am assuming that some of you are disaster professionals and others might be librarians. In particular, in this session—here is to all of you librarians out there—I’m talking the talk today, but you are the ones who walk the walk, and frequently unsung.

Hopefully today will shed some light on the valuable work you and your colleagues do with the hope there can be an increased interaction between the traditional or historic disaster risk reduction, risk management community and librarians and libraries.

During much of my 25 year career in disaster risk management, I have focused on information and communications and information technologies for disaster preparedness and response. I tend to focus mostly on natural hazards and risk reduction, although I have been involved in humanitarian assistance activities and response.

In the early days of information management, I went to Somalia in the early nineties for AID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and for the UN’s UNOSOM (the United Nation’s Operation in Somalia) to try to figure out how to get UN agencies, international organizations, NGOs and donor governments to share information inter-institutionally and across disciplines.

During that time, I was one of the developers of Relief Web, which I commend to you now, but at the time it was quite a challenge, particularly in the early years and working with the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and UN agencies involved in disasters. There was little input from trained librarians. We considered information management as a new world and we attempted to create the wheel based on our experiences working in the field.

For the past 20 years or so I have worked with the National Library of Medicine. For those of you who are not aware, the National Library of Medicine is located on the campus of the National Institutes of Health. It is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services. It is the largest medical library in the world.

As I’ll explain shortly, it has an increasing activity in disaster information management. I have been working with NLM on the development of DIMRC, as it is referred to, and many of the other things the NLM does, particularly with respect to health information outreach into minority and disenfranchised communities.

NLM has as a mission the collection and maintenance and sharing of medical information—very broadly conceived—throughout the country and the world. I’ll explain that shortly. In summary, the value of libraries and librarians have always been a given to me, because we are fortunate to live in a culture that appreciates the need for librarians, even if we frequently take them and the services they provide for granted.

The process of integrating libraries and librarians into the mix of disaster risk reduction and response is exciting to me because it brings in a new set of professionals with complementary skills, eager to support their communities. My unsolicited plug is the libraries and librarians should be considered essential infrastructure, particularly in the context of federal, state and local disaster management.

I’m happy to say that FEMA has responded recently to Congressional mandate calling for this recognition, but there needs to be greater recognition of the vital role and this FEMA recognition comes at a time when libraries and library services are seeing cutbacks in funding and support, particularly on the local level.

As we’ll see from some of the slides I’ll start now, how vital the role is, not just as we tend to consider librarians as a community resource for directing us to community information and literature that might be of interest to us, but in fact for vital resources that are important to us as well.

[Slide 2]

Thank you to my friends at the National Library of Medicine! I asked if they would share with me some slides that I might use. I’ve taken the liberty to edit them a little bit, but not so much that it changes the intent. For the sake of formatting, I kept the format of the slides with the NLM logo at the bottom.

Just to put everybody on notice, for further information, you should get in touch with the National Library of Medicine. I would be happy to and will answer questions, but these slides are from NLM with my editing and addition.

I will refer to library activities broadly, but my focus of concentration has been with the National Library of Medicine which really has been on the forefront of efforts that now include the Medical Library Association, the American Library Association—so health libraries as well as general public libraries are involved.

A few years ago, the NLM established through its long range plan a Disaster Health Information Research Center (DIMRC). As you see here, the idea is that it will do things internal to NLM as well as supporting the broader public, including collecting, organizing and disseminating health information for all types of disasters and faces of disaster.

Developing online disaster tools, training librarians to serve as disaster information specialists—some of these terms and phrases I’ll get into more deeply in the discussion—planning and training to insure that during disaster operations continue at NLM and its eight regional libraries and the 5,800 libraries that are a part of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine.

NLM is located in Bethesda, Maryland on the campus of NIH and it has a collection and it also houses a variety of information, programs and specialists. Among them are disaster information professionals. NLM gets its funding largely from Congress and then uses that funding to operate its own programs and also lets grants on a regular basis to a regional set of medical libraries typically associated with academic health centers throughout the country in various regions. It is a competitive process in order to get such a designation as one of the regional libraries.

NLM uses its funds in part to support these medical libraries, which then in turn support more regional, sub-regional and local medical and health libraries. You see this extension into 5,800 libraries, and then there is certainly a bleeding into the public library system in addition to health libraries.

[Slide 3]

I mentioned in the early slide some of the products that the NLM has developed with colleagues and other agencies—academic centers and private sector groups. Among them are three that you should know or be aware of if you’re not already. I have links to them.

One of them is the Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders (WISER): http://wiser.nlm.nih.gov/

The other is the Radiation Emergency Medical Management (REMM): http://www.remm.nlm.gov/index.html

The newest one is the Chemical Hazards Emergency Medical Management (CHEMM): http://www.chemm.nlm.nih.gov/

These are online tools that will help disaster professionals and community first responders to go a long way in terms of identifying the status of an emergency and decisions trees, etc., that can be used as a result of working with this software. They are publicly available. I encourage you to take a look at them.

[Slide 4]

Another thing that the NLM has done and is doing with its colleague institutions throughout the country is developing the concept of Disaster Information Specialist. If you will, it is the kind of concept—if you look at the way many Emergency Operation Centers work, there are disaster professionals that are identified from particular sectors of the local or state or federal government who have understanding of the working of those sectors and how to communicate within those sectors to plan for and respond to emergencies.

Frequently in disasters—recurrent types of disasters—questions can be answered in somewhat of a formatted way—a question that might come in from the community or from one sector to another. Frequently, and in emergent situations in particular, there are questions that are not easily answered by format.

Someone needs to research the answer, look at where the source material is, and come up with a response or responses that can be shared with the public. The concept for the Disaster Information Specialist is who better to do that type of work than a professional trained in searching for information, preserving and sharing it, and understanding the information needs of the community.

Libraries are almost as ubiquitous as Seven-Elevens, fortunately. If one library has difficulty, there is frequently another one not too far away that can help out. Most public libraries nowadays have internet connectivity and serve as resources for the community, broadly speaking. The idea of a Disaster Information Specialist coming from the library environment seems particularly logical.

Now the concept is being piloted in several areas. What NLM and their colleagues are doing is looking at developing roles for libraries providing information outreach for their communities for all hazards. Certainly the idea of local collections of information relative to the vulnerability of a local community is important.

Also Hurricane Mitch showed us that many community residents went to libraries when they lost their homes or their services and used the libraries as shelter, for one thing. Importantly, in the context of information, they used the library resources to file claims with FEMA and to get information about the condition of the community.

The specialist program also assesses the need for a national training curriculum and certification program for libraries interested in providing disaster health information. In this respect they are working on developing a curriculum—an online program of the Medical Library Association that might support the training and perhaps ultimately certification of librarians as Disaster Information Specialists.

They managed the disaster reach listserv which now has over 500 subscribers, at http://sis.nlm.nih.gov/dimrc/dimrclistserv.html. I encourage you to look at that and become members. That URL will take you to the page where you can very easily subscribe to the listserv.

They encourage the development of library partnerships and library preparedness and learning from the experiences of disasters. One of the things that has resulted from this increased awareness is that FEMA, on January 7 changed its policy to recognize libraries as essential community organizations.

As a result of this recognition, they are eligible for temporary relocation funding in times of disaster or emergency. This is now a part of the revised Stafford Act as mandated by Congress. This is very positive and is one of the first public indications of that recognition of the role of libraries.

[Slide 5]

As I mentioned, there are several pilots—I have only referred to a couple here with the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Office (ASPR) that asked for within the Department of Health and Human Services, there is a Disaster Information Specialist who is working on a variety of topics, including ethics, public policy and special populations.

They are enhancing the collection of information—books and journals—on behalf of ASPR. They are developing a survey of public health officers (Commissioned Corps) to understand information needs. They are a member of the Bethesda Hospital Partnership Project, for those of you who are in the area or know the area—that includes the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, the National Naval Medical Center, and the Bethesda Medical Libraries Emergency Preparedness Partnership.

It also includes NLM, the Suburban Hospital Library, and the Health Sciences Learning and Resource Center. They regularly engage in drills, the results of which are public and the lessons learned are being shared throughout the country for ultimately the improvement of local hospital partnerships.

[Slide 6]

Here is an example of the work that is being done at the Uniformed Services University and the National Naval Medical Center. You’ll see the development of the traveling classroom with the WISER, REMM and CHEMM, although it’s not recognized in that slide, and looking at the interviews and surveying librarians and enhancing the collection, etc.

[Slide 7]

One of the pilot programs inside the NLM community is working with New York University developing disaster resource information—blogs, Delicious (which is a library of media cataloging), online training class, collection development. An informationist is assigned to the Agents of Opportunity grant.

The Agents of Opportunity are potentially harmful biological chemical substances used in association with healthcare delivery and research. Then active hospital preparedness activities, emergency preparedness, and credentialing, which is increasingly an issue in events where health professionals are available and present themselves to support the effort, and how they would then be credentialed.

[Slide 8]

We refer also to the Emergency Access Initiative, which you are welcome to check out. This is in partnership with several organizations, the idea of making free full fetched biomedical literature available to affected disaster areas for a time after events. It has been done in several cases and is likely to continue.

You might be aware that if you go online and Google for biomedical literature, you will get an abstract but without authorization or payment of dues, you don’t get the full text. In this case, with the Emergency Access Initiative, when you register you will have full access to the full text of the information and experiences.

[Slide 9]

Here are some other resources:

I would encourage you the next time you have 550 minutes of free time that you take a look at this video cast of a symposium that took place at NLM March 29-30 of this year that was very exciting. It represented the first time that such a large group of library and information professionals interacted and online with colleagues of the disaster risk management community.

Again, I thank the organizers. I thank the librarians for having in such rapid order only within the past couple of years to become such a significant player on the community, state, national and international scene. I hope I have shed some light on the opportunities for interaction between and among the communities, and I look forward to questions and answers you may have.

If I can’t respond, I will be happy to refer you to my colleagues at NLM, most notably Stacey Arnesen, who is the director of the program, and Cindy Love, both of whom might be on the line here but might not be able to respond to your questions. You can certainly get from the links that I’ve provided access to them. I would be happy to take any emails as follow-up and refer you to colleagues that might be helpful.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much John. Now, to proceed to our Q&A.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Amy Sebring: Can you tell us how far along that certification effort is for the specialist?

John Scott: In terms of pilot application, the Disaster Information Specialist is actually happening in certain locations. In terms of curriculum development that NLM is working with the National Library Association, they have an outline of the approach they want to take and now they are reviewing solicitations or responses to their requests for proposal for individuals or organizations to develop that curriculum on their behalf.

I think that timeframe is when they would like to see the draft curriculum having been developed at least in draft form and shared with some reviewers in late September. In the fall would likely be a time to shake out the bugs of the prototype. I don’t know after that, but I would assume it would be reasonable to think early next year where something might be available either on a pilot project—that, I don’t know.

I would be happy to refer you for a specific answer to that or a timeline to NLM or the Medical Library Association.

Amy Sebring: Is it envisioned as an undergraduate curriculum?

John Scott: Ultimately, it could be. My understanding, and my encouragement would be, is that it would be considered very broadly. They are looking at it for community libraries, public libraries, any librarian who wished to, or even non-librarian, who wished to take the program, there would be some sort of basic program that would be general awareness of the needs and roles of the information specialist.

From there, there would likely be a more sophisticated program that would lead possibly to certification and lead to the curriculum of medical library professionals and academic health centers. Again, that is over time and my understanding of how it would be envisioned. I think they are taking it conservatively step by step to develop a program that works on multiple levels.

Tim Marshall: Has there ever been any discussion or thoughts on using Libraries as volunteer resource centers for registering and assigning spontaneous volunteers?

John Scott: Yes. This may have happened over time for ages, but the time I first encountered such activity was after Katrina. I went down after Katrina with Stacey Arnesen from the National Library of Medicine and we did a survey of minority health profession schools that were affected by the hurricane.

While we were down there we stopped by libraries and saw that on an ad hoc basis, not because of a national organized campaign, there were those kinds of efforts taking place. Now I think it is in the agenda of things to do within the library associations—to provide those kinds of information resources.

And as I mentioned earlier in another context, who better to do that than a library which appreciates the local resources and local institutions and again, because libraries have frequently telecommunication or internet resources, the idea of being able to share the resource lists, not just with their specific community, but within the state, is also an opportunity.

Amy Sebring:
I was looking through related material and found several examples where libraries were used for post-disaster assistance centers.

John Scott: Libraries in Katrina are good examples. The libraries that were functioning in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge area after Katrina—many were flooded and destroyed and people displaced—but those that were operating took in people. You find commonly that libraries in emergency situations, like when there are heat waves in Washington D.C., or where I live has been experiences 90 degree plus—unhealthy temperatures.

The radio recommendations are to seek public libraries or theaters, if you don’t have air conditioning. The libraries have been shelter, cool places to be, particularly if you don’t have that kind of resource.

But importantly they also have a trained—and this is part of the training and awareness of the disaster information specialist—is understanding what resources are available online that can help their community residents that present themselves get access to information that is important about how to file claims with FEMA or their insurance companies, or where to go for help support or alternatives to where they might go to find their drugs because their traditional community pharmacy was destroyed in the disaster.

There are a lot of those kinds of information resources that are post disaster response and recovery that are being done by librarians and likely, through the efforts of NLM and the American Library Association and Medical Library Association will be done more often in the future on a more regular planned basis.

Dallas Millican: Are libraries being utilized as heat shelters during the current heat wave across the U.S?

John Scott: Remember—I’ll put in another plug—that this is at a time when libraries are probably having difficulty finding the funds to pay for the air conditioning bill they get. I have no way of knowing who is on the list, but any of you who are in a position to effect public policy the recognition that in so many ways—libraries play such a crucial role that the idea of them being losing out on budget tightening because they are seen as non-essential would be very much a shame.

Avagene Moore: John, thank you for this learning opportunity. As the program grows and expands, what can interested parties do to enhance the exchange between local level libraries and their respective emergency managers even in rural areas such as my own county?

John Scott: Great questions. Several answers—I mentioned and I gave you the link for looking at the National Network of Libraries of Medicine—although the National Library itself would be happy to respond to any individual requests for information about where they might go for resources, your more localized link would be through the Medical Library of your region which you can find out about by clicking on that link. I would encourage you to also visit your local public library, particularly those who are in the disaster risk management profession.

The idea of working as a team with your local librarians to set up a community resource both online and hardcopy, as much as I’m an advocate of online access, I think it is important to have a library of hard copy materials available to your community—the kinds of things that you would think of from the Red Cross or FEMA and particularly localized versions of those things.

If you go in hand with that collection of material and sit down and say that you would like to be a resource to the library to help develop that localized collection and help get the word out to the community—that grass roots way is probably the quickest and most effective way to go for local support.

Randy Rice: Comment: We are indeed designated as cooling centers, but have several library branches closing because of inadequate or failing air conditioning units.

Guadalupe Pacheco: Will the training curriculum be a Web-based?

John Scott: Yes, it will be web-based. Hello Guadalupe, a good friend. I will take an opportunity to plug some of the great work Guadalupe has done. Guadalupe is with the Office of Minority Health and has worked to spearhead the program on cultural competency for first responders, which is something I would commend to you, and something I would say would be worthy of a presentation in and of itself. Yes it will be an online course.

Amy Sebring:
I’m sure people are anxious to check out these links and explore the opportunities—these are real opportunities for the emergency management side and the libraries side.

John Scott: I would look forward to emails that I could forward to colleagues that would be happy to follow up. My email address: [email protected]

Amy Sebring:
You mentioned that during January the change in the Stafford Act was announced? That was this past January?

John Scott: Yes, that was January 7 when it was announced. For those of you who want to check it out, it is under Section 403 of the Stafford Act. It is making them eligible for emergency assistance for temporary relocation.

There ought to be a plug for libraries—some other legislation, state or local that recognizes libraries as infrastructure. If any of you are on your city councils, encourage your council to consider recognizing your local libraries as essential infrastructure and recognizing the contribution they make and try to help or support the idea of preserving them in these economic hard times.

Amy Sebring:
What can you tell us about library continuity of operations planning?

John Scott: I mentioned that only in passing but probably too much in passing. That is one of the main things that the American Library Association and the Medical Library Association and NLM are doing with the National Network of Libraries is developing an awareness of the needs of the information resources—both the technology and the library hard copy of library resources so they are protected.

We saw in many cases, like Katrina, it is common in flooding where historical materials are frequently put in the basement and therefore get flooded. The idea of how you protect those in advance of an event in understanding what your vulnerability is, and then developing the networks where they can communicate with your colleagues and colleague libraries so that if one of you needs assistance or one of you cannot provide continuity of resource to your community, making provision for a colleague library to do that.

Amy Sebring: Basically in EM lingo talking about some kind of mutual assistance agreements.

John Scott: I think that is part of the plan for the curriculum development—ultimately, it is serving the community, but there is an element of protecting the library resource that will be built in.


Amy Sebring: I think you’ve done a very good job of introducing us to this topic. I certainly do hope folks will follow on and for those emergency managers out there that they’ll at least pass the information on to their respective community libraries so they can learn more about it. On behalf of Avagene and myself and the rest of the Board of Directors of EIIP we thank you very much John. We appreciate your taking the time to be with us today to share this information.

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