Robert M. Bird Health Sciences Library, University of Oklahoma

Marty Thompson, the Director of the Robert M. Bird Health Sciences Library at the University of Oklahoma, discusses how the library was involved in the aftermath of the bombing in Oklahoma City in April 1995.

Interview date: June 26th, 2007

Questions:

(1.) What happened in your community (i.e., what was the disaster/emergency)?

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was the first terrorist attack on US soil. Now, I think of it as being very minor compared to others – but at the time, it was the most horrible thing we could imagine. The car bomb just ripped the building apart. We waited for news of survivors, but there weren’t many after the first afternoon. It was devastating for the community; most people knew someone who died (or knew someone who knew someone). There was a huge impact on children too.

(2.) How did the library respond? How did the librarian respond? Were there non-traditional (unusual) roles that the librarian performed?

The library system always jumps to help, but there wasn’t much we could do during the initial response phase. First responders were concentrating on finding survivors. And we just waited to hear.

Personally, my first priority was helping our staff members cope with the grief. Every staff member had a different situation as a result of the disaster. I had to treat them all as individuals and handle each of them appropriately. Only when the library staff members were able to move forward did we re-focus on the health professional community. We were very lucky as no one on our staff was directly involved. But we all knew families that were. Some staff found it very difficult to pull certain library materials (psychiatry and pathology). I believe that it was harder on the paraprofessionals than on the professional staff. The professional staff members were wonderful; they did everything possible to serve our community. Our reference staff acted very professionally and they were able to deal with any question. For the most part, the paraprofessional staff was shielded from medical cases.

But, everyone needed to find a way to deal with the constant reminders of this terrible event. The State Medical Examiner’s office is only one block from the library. Of course, all of the bodies went there. The building was roped off for a long time and our staff had to see it every time they came to work. I didn’t think beforehand about how this would affect them, but it was terribly upsetting. I had to suggest to some people that they take another route to work. It wasn’t obvious to some people that they had to change their regular routine in order to deal with the stress and the emotional impact.

Support came from everywhere. We received many calls from other libraries. They asked if we needed help with ILL (interlibrary loan). Vendors called to offer support. From just a few comments, they started to send us pathology and psychiatry resources. They suggested databases that might be turned on for a period of time. Everyone wanted to help; and I swiftly came to realize just how small and tightly knit the library community was. The headquarters for the Metropolitan Library System was only four blocks south of the explosion. Technically speaking, they were “inside the yellow tape,” for several days. The force of the explosion blew out all of their windows. As much as possible, we tried to support them and to solicit help on their behalf.

We had a strong desire to do more, but the reality was different. People will tell you to find your niche and fill in. But, it is a hard prospect. We tried to help everyday. But when disasters are happening; it is all about first responders. What we discovered was that our primary role was in the aftermath. The pathology department at the university became involved and we supported them through reference, literature searches, etc… The psychiatry department also was very active dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. The work that was done after the attack turned into numerous research projects. The university departments became first-hand experts with valuable knowledge for communities that had suffered due to terrorist attacks. Our people have been around the world helping others and the library has always been involved with supporting these efforts.

(3.) How has the library (or the services provided) changed as a result of these events?

In conjunction with the Metropolitan Library System, we started offering courses on disaster response. We also became very involved with the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. Initially, we helped them build up their collection of health resource. But since then, we have established a decade-long working relationship with their library director, Brad Robison. He made me realize that we had never reached out to the first responder market. Brad worked to create databases to help responders in their work. As an indirect result of this disaster, we discovered a new market of first responders as library clients.

From a grant offered by the CDC, the Southwest Center for Preparedness was opened and is now located on the university campus. We have done a lot of direct training for the center.

The attack changed research directions for the entire campus. And, as a result, the library now collects more in the areas of emergency medicine, disaster planning, response, recovery, grief counseling, etc… In the weeks and months after the attack, we saw victims’ families coming into the library looking for information. This was just another indication of how dramatically our user group had changed.

The changes to our collections and services inspired an awareness that the library didn’t have before. Tornadoes are a regular occurrence in Oklahoma and now we are ready for them. We have learned to prepare for natural disasters that are likely to happen in our area; and we’re doing what we can to avoid being caught off-guard and to help other institutions do the same. But, as much as we can predict and plan, real preparedness is more about attitude than anything else.

One of my favorite stories about libraries helping was from Lee Brawner who was the director of the Metropolitan Library System (he has since passed away). We called him the “Consummate Library Director.” After the attacks, a church just north of the library headquarters was being used as a morgue. First responders were facing horrible and grisly work pulling bodies out of the rubble and bringing them to the church. Lee asked the responders what he could do to help. They told him that they needed a place to wash their dogs. Lee took care of it right away; he offered the staff lounge and the shower room at the library. It became the refuge for those responders. It was a place to relax, away from the mayhem. They could just wash their dogs and sit in peace.

Lee’s story isn’t about being at the site, acting the hero. It was about doing what you could, about being on the periphery and finding a way to offer effective help, even in the most non-traditional ways.

(4.) What, in your opinion, are the roles for libraries (and librarians) in disaster planning, response and recovery efforts?

Teaching is the first role that comes to mind. My first class was organized with Brad Robison at the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism and the Southwest Center for Preparedness (with some financial support from the CDC). We taught Bioterrorism 101, which is now called “Disaster Planning.” I teach people that it doesn’t make a difference what the disaster is; you have to learn to cope with the unexpected. I’m not a “paper person.” I don’t think that a manual on a shelf is going to be much help when the time comes. Preparedness is more about knowing what you can do and how you can react. Recently, I became very frustrated with my night students. Instead of reacting during a tornado warning, they called to find out what to do. I told them to get below ground and to take the patrons downstairs. They all knew what to do, but they needed instructions. Real preparedness teaches us to act, not to wait around for someone else to tell you what to do.

In our classes, we present situations and ask the students what to do. If you were to ask me, I would tell you that my first priority is to take care of the staff. Then work on reestablishing the library. This is a lesson I learned from Lee: the library is an important constant for the community. Let them know that you are OK; and it will give them the confidence to move forward.

One of our scenarios involves an infectious outbreak in the community. The first reaction is always to go home. But, we have to think about opening again and establishing normalcy. Library is the touchstone and we set the tone for the campus.

Librarians have to know who to call; know who is in charge; know what to do. They have to be able to answer questions like: where are the freezers for the books?

A lot of the people that you need to know in a disaster won’t be part of your everyday lives (police, fire people, maintenance, etc…). However, they become immediately important in a disaster. It is very important to change your normal routine and get to know these people.

After the bombing, there was a heightened sense of awareness. People were really excited about teaching disaster planning. But then there was a drought for many years. People forget when everything returns to normal. It would seem that we all need some event to wake us up. However, now is the time for revival and retraining.

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