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Report From the Trenches of the Disaster Information Outreach Symposium

Submitted by Jamie Graham, Librarian, Seattle Children’s

On March 29-30 of this year, I had the opportunity to attend the 2011 Disaster Information Outreach Symposium in Bethesda, Maryland.  Speakers and participants from all levels of government, non-profit, libraries and business gathered to discuss expectations, strategies, and services librarians and libraries could offer in times of emergency.  Questions of how to engage key players, deliver the right kind of services, and identify real needs vs. perceived needs ruled the day.

What I found particularly interesting was the emphasis that all responders placed on communication management; an area that librarians are primed to assist with.  Communication breakdown (or slow turnaround on information dissemination) is one of the top issues speakers noted time and time again.  It seems that often, when librarians think of disaster, salvage of the collection, infrastructure, and similar material concerns are prime foci of our attention.  However, it was apparent that our intangible skills (synthesis, retrieval, archiving, and indexing) may be the most useful in the immediate wake of an event.  Examples ranging from categorization of photo documentation to production of executive summaries of data were all noted as vital contributions librarians have provided or could provide during a crisis.  Although not always within the scope of our daily tasks, projects such as this can alleviate a central need during times of high pressure for decision-makers and response teams.  This was a  theme that was central throughout the symposium.

Although no definitive roles for librarians have been identified yet, it is clear that our services are valued and coveted by those in the know.  That sentiment was abundantly clear by the caliber of speakers and diversity of participants present.  Given the importance of preparedness (especially in light of recent events in Japan), it was invaluable to have such a timely and informative professional exchange.

Note: Since this article was written, the Medical Library Association has begun to develop a Disaster Information Specialization that includes developing a continuing education curriculum on disaster health information, with support from the National Library of Medicine.  They are also developing a list of objectives for librarians to achieve through the Specialization program. [Gail Kouame]

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