Disaster Information For Librarians

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The purpose of this entry is to present background information on disaster management and information sources for librarians working with the disaster workforce.
For information on preparing libraries for disasters, please see:
An excellent guide is also Deborah Halsted's handbook, Disaster Planning: A How-to-do-it Manual for Librarians.

What is an emergency, a disaster, a health disaster?

We often hear these words, but they are rarely defined. Before we can explore the roles of librarians in the disaster life cycle (mitigation, planning, response and recovery) it is worth understanding what disasters are.
Emergency Management Cycle
Think of an event.
  • An event is "an occurrence that has the potential to affect living beings and/or their environment; a realization of a hazard."[1] Imagine that a tanker truck carrying toxic chemicals has flipped over on a suburban highway. No chemicals may have been spilled, but this event has the potential to escalate.
  • An emergency is "a situation that is out of control and requires immediate attention."[2] The truck is now spilling chemicals onto the road. Individuals are getting out of their cars and trying to help the injured truck driver when a fire breaks out. The event is now an emergency. Immediate assistance is required to attend to the injured, disperse the crowd, put out the fire, and clean up the chemicals.
  • A disaster is "a serious disruption of the functioning of society, causing widespread human, materials or environmental losses which exceed the ability of affected society to cope using only its own resources."[3] The fire has spread rapidly to the residential area adjacent to the highway. Firefighters have arrived, but they are too few to manage the situation without outside assistance.
  • A health disaster is "a precipitous or gradual decline in the overall health status of a community for which the community is unable to cope without assistance." [4] Individuals who stopped to help the truck driver are now lying on the ground unconscious. Residents of the adjacent suburbs are suffering from coughing, vomiting, and severe headaches. Paramedics have arrived, but they lack protective equipment needed to attend to the injured without exposing themselves to the chemical fire. They need outside assistance.

You can see how an event can cause an emergency, and how that emergency can turn into a disaster, and how a disaster in turn can create a health disaster.

Librarians' Roles in Disaster Planning

Interprofessionalism is paramount to effective disaster mitigation, planning, response and recovery. Members of the disaster workforce include both licensed or credentialed health professionals (nurses, paramedics, pharmacists, physicians, etc.) and additional licensed or trained professionals (community volunteers, firefighters, emergency managers, etc.), including librarians.

Librarians assist disaster workers by rapidly identifying, evaluating and disseminating information. Further, librarians train emergency responders in the use of information tools; and librarians monitor information sources to support decision-making by emergency managers.[5]

A project from the National Library of Medicine's (NLM) Disaster Information Management Research Center (DIMRC) identified functions for librarians:

  • actively participating in emergency preparedness meetings and listening carefully for unfilled needs and questions
  • creating and maintaining email lists for specific groups and needs to distribute updated pertinent information quickly and efficiently
  • maintaining a careful watch of PubMed, government agency reports, news reports, and NLM/DIMRC emails to provide updated information to the emergency management or preparedness committee members.[6]

Finding Disaster Health Information

The following Medline-indexed journals contain peer-reviewed articles and research on disaster health topics.

In addition to appearing in the above sources, disaster health literature is found in the scholarly literature of many health specialties. Emergency medicine, health administration and public health are just a few examples. It is essential to develop search strategies that include a wide variety of sources when seeking disaster health literature.

Disaster Health Subject Headings

Valuable resources for locating appropriate subject headings to use in searches for disaster health information are NLM's Guide MeSH Terms Used in Indexing Disaster-Related Journal Articles and the U.S. Fire Administration Learning Resource Center's subject heading list.

Use also the Library of Congress (LC) subject heading "Disaster Medicine," with its narrower entries for "Disaster Hospital" and "Disaster Nursing."

There is no Doody's category for "Disaster Medicine." When locating monographs for collection building, try the terms:

  • Emergency Medical Services
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Public Health

WorldCat categories:

  • Emergency Medical Services
  • Emergency Management
  • Emergencies
  • Disaster Planning
  • Disaster Medicine

Sources of Disaster Health Information

Recognize that opportunities for disaster research are limited. Randomized, double-blinded, clinical studies, case-control or cohort studies are impractical for most research in disaster medicine.[7]

Qualitative studies, using a case or case series design, are more common. Evidence from interviews, government reports, hospital and emergency department logs, de-briefing documents, media stories and other sources of grey literature contributes primarily to disaster research studies.[8] Prepare to utilize a variety of databases and web sources when seeking disaster literature.

Depending on the period -- mitigation, planning, response or recovery -- in which you are providing services, information requests will differ. Grey literature sources will help you find planning documents, agency reports will help you find current mortality and morbidity statistics, and bibliographic databases will help you find peer-reviewed journal literature.

Consider your audience. Are you providing services to nurse managers, volunteer fire fighters, health care administrators, academic researchers? How will they be accessing the information? Do they need a quick summary to be displayed on a mobile device? Do they require a systematic search of the literature?

The resources below (Canadian, American, and international) are categorized to assist you in finding disaster information information efficiently for a wide range of audiences.

Best Bets for Disaster Information

  • A gateway to grey literature resources that are freely available on the web.
  • NLM's biomedical literature database. Indexes many disaster medicine journals.
  • Evidence Aid uses knowledge from Cochrane Reviews and other systematic reviews to provide best-available evidence on interventions that might be considered in the context of natural disasters and other major healthcare emergencies

Canadian Resources



American Resources

International Resources

Specialized Libraries for Disaster and Emergency Management Literature

Disaster Information from Professional Associations

Disaster Information from Academic Centres

Disaster Health Information Tools & Resources from NLM

Disaster Health Information for the Public/Consumer



Paediatric Disaster Information



Surveillance Tools for Infectious Disease Outbreaks

Agencies report infectious disease incidence statistics through some of the tools listed here. Health care organizations, in particular, may require updated mortality and morbidity numbers to support administrative decision making in the case of infectious disease outbreaks.




Disaster Information Apps

Many tools are available to help you find important information on your mobile device during a disaster.

Disaster Health Information Email Lists

Email lists are a great way to stay connected and join discussions on disaster management topics.

Disaster Health Information RSS Feeds

Monitoring disaster information is a key role for librarians in disaster management. Subscribing to RSS feeds from agencies that release disaster-related information will allow you to stay abreast of updates and breaking news. Don't forget your local news sources though -- they are your best bet for finding out what is happening in your community.

  • CDC
  • ECDC
  • FEMA
  • ReliefWeb's feeds allows you to create RSS feeds for any search of their website (i.e., create an RSS feed for news about epidemics, or create a feed for news of disasters in Canada)
  • NLM's feeds includes the Division of Specialized Information Services and DIMRC
  • WHO's feeds include disease outbreak, emergencies and disaster news

Disaster Health Information on Twitter

Social media plays an important role in monitoring and sharing disaster information. Twitter hashtags for emergency management can help you follow relevant conversations related to disasters or events. For a list of disaster hash tags, see the post on the DavisLogic Emergency Management Blog [9]. Also follow the Disaster Information Management Research Center @NLM_DIMRC

Disaster Health Information Widgets

A widget allows you to insert code from disaster agencies in your website. Once added, the widget updates and displays information from agencies on your site.

Training Opportunities

Courses that complement information presented on this page are offered through the Medical Library Association's (MLA's) Disaster Information Specialization Program and the Canadian Health Libraries Association's (CHLA's) Continuing Education course, Disaster Health Information Sources for Canadians.



Work to compile this preliminary list of disaster health information sources was funded by the National Library of Medicine under contract HHS-N-276-2010-00782-P.

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