Terrorism Information Center, Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, Oklahoma

Brad Robison, Director of the Terrorism Information Center at the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, discusses his experience during the bombing in Oklahoma City in April 1995 and the disaster information services the library currently provides.

Interview date: July 18th, 2007

Questions:

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

It was a beautiful spring morning on April 19, 1995. No one could have known that before the end of this particular day thousands of lives would change forever. As the director of a small private university library in Oklahoma City, I arrived at the library early that morning and began to settle in for the expected rush of students who had put off completing term papers until the last moment. It was about 9:00 a.m. and I was having a conversation with one of the reference librarians when suddenly the building shook and the windows rattled violently. Having taken numerous study groups to Japan and having experienced several minor earthquakes I immediately thought EARTHQUAKE. My second thought was, no this is Oklahoma, not a typical site for a violent earthquake. Geneva, the reference librarian, thought the weight of shelving and journals on the third floor of our building had finally taken its toll and the floor collapsed. I headed for the stairwell fully expecting people to be running down as I was running up but no one was in sight. When I arrived on the third floor I quickly surmised nothing had fallen but saw smoke rising from the downtown Oklahoma City skyline. Of course not knowing to put the smoke with the sudden shaking of the building, I determined that what Geneva and I had felt and heard was nothing more than a sonic boom from Tinker Air Force Base, just east of Oklahoma City.

Several minutes passed before my phone started ringing and friends in New York were calling to ask me what was going on in Oklahoma City. Not having turned on the TV I was unaware of what they were referring to. I rolled one of our TV’s into the lobby of the library, turned it on and saw for the first time the carnage of what ended up being a terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. At first, the reports were “there has been some sort of explosion downtown.” Perhaps it was a gas explosion. The thought of a terrorist bomb was not mentioned for nearly half an hour. The library, being at the physical center of the campus was a hub for the students to gather and watch the story unfold. Our staff brought in extra chairs as more and more students came by to see what was going on. The immediate thought on everyone’s mind was what we can do to help.

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

The lobby of the library quickly became the focal point on campus where students and faculty could easily learn the needs of the emergency response community. People gathered around the TV to know where to go to donate blood, where to take food and where donations were being collected. The lobby of the library also became a place for the sharing of tears as we learned that the explosion was probably caused by a fellow human full of hatred. We were learning too that children may have been included in the list of those that were obviously not going to survive the explosion and collapse of the building. By afternoon, the beautiful spring morning had given way to thunderstorms and a city full of shock and grief as the victims were removed from the bombed out building, one body at a time.

When the dust and debris cleared 168 people, including 19 children were killed and hundreds more seriously injured. Out of the rubble a plan for a multi-component memorial was established. The memorial was to consist of a remembrance component an educational component and a research component. It was the dream of the family members and survivors that the research component have a library and information center as the “living memorial” to their loved ones. Thus the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism was founded. An act of Congress was passed and appropriation made to begin development of the “premier source of terrorism information sharing among federal, state and local agencies.”

As the steering committee for the development of the Institute and Library began their work, it became clear the emergency response community would need to be actively involved in creating this new resource of information. As a volunteer for the Memorial Archive, I was invited to be on the steering committee for the development of the Institute’s information center and library. Though not apparent at the time, the need for information professionals, both librarians and archivists was a necessity. Thousands of cards, letters and artifacts were mailed to the bomb site along with thousands more being left at the scene on a daily basis. Archiving and preserving this information was the foundation of what later became the Memorial Museum. Many of the documents collected early on became the basis of the future Lessons Learned Information Sharing, (LLIS) the official lessons learned site for the Department of Homeland Security. Final reports, after action reports, studies, etc. from numerous agencies were collected with the hope of assisting other communities in preparation dealing with a similar mass casualty event. Reports and studies following a variety of terrorist incidents and natural disasters make up the LLIS database.

Fire and law enforcement professionals were brought to the table to assist in the establishment of key databases that would help these groups prepare and perhaps prevent future acts of terrorism. The Responder Knowledge Base (RKB) was created to assist the emergency response community know what protective clothing and equipment is available and whether or not it meets standards and who certified the equipment against the standards. The RKB also informs the emergency response community if grant money is available in order for them to make application.

The MIPT Terrorism Information Center and Library (TIC) is a wealth of information not only for the emergency response community but for academics, policy makers, and the public at large. Thousands of documents have been added to the TIC along with nearly 3,000 book titles easily available for checkout. Information on the topic of terrorism seems to be endless and the need to collect, organize and disseminate that information is essential for eliminating this scourge from the world. The services that libraries and librarians have traditionally provided remain very important.

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

The MIPT and its Terrorism Information Center work closely with emergency agencies on a regular basis. The TIC has held forums to bring members of the law enforcement community together to inform them of the information resources available. We have also brought together fire prevention and preparedness professionals in an effort to inform them of the valuable resources the TIC have to offer. We are currently working with Hospital Security Officials to make sure they are planning and preparing for whatever terrorists bring to the table with another event.

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

I suppose to sum everything up, I would say that librarians need to work closely with their respective communities and serve as neutral forums in bringing to the table people needed to plan and organize community preparedness programs. Whoever their constituency consists of need to be part of the planning. In a city, the mayor, city manager, fire chief, police chief, public health officials and personnel from utilities companies need to meet and develop emergency response plans. Librarians can lead the way in bringing these groups together by providing them with necessary information to develop their own disaster response and recovery plans.

Additional Question:

(5.) Were you involved in the response to any other disaster/emergency situations?

After the anthrax attacks our library staff, which consists of two, assisted the Oklahoma State Office of Civil Emergency Management by answering phone calls from a 24-hour call-in center. A phone number was posted via radio and TV for those having specific questions related to small pox and anthrax. It’s just another service librarians can provide.
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