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EPA Releases Its National Library Network Strategic Plan FY2012-2014
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Posted On June 27, 2011
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On Thursday, June 23, the EPA released its National Library Network Strategic Plan FY2012-2014. The 3-year strategic plan addresses four key areas—EPA library network governance, services, collections (electronic and physical), and communications outreach and training. According to Deborah Balsamo, National Program Manager – EPA National Library Network, “we developed our dream strategic plan based on current resource levels,” recognizing that the phased, incremental implementation will have to be tempered in timing due to budget constraints being felt throughout federal government agencies. Seven EPA librarians worked on the strategic plan that was shared with internal stakeholders and reviewed by an advisory board from the Federal Library and Information Center Committee (FLICC) at the Library of Congress. FLICC recently presented the EPA National Library Network with its 2011 award in the large library information/center category, citing “demonstrated critical mission support, service innovation, and exceptional customer service.”

Striving to operate as one, the EPA Library Network consists of three different types of libraries, with different levels of responsibility, staffing, and collections. There are three repository libraries, also known as lead service centers (at headquarters in Washington, DC; Research Triangle Park, NC; and Andrew W. Breidenbach Environmental Research Center in Cincinnati). Ten regional libraries serve the local and regional environmental information needs of scientific researchers and are often the first point-of-contact for the public. Five specialty libraries are distinguished by specialized focus areas and subject-specific collections; nine laboratory libraries primarily serve EPA’s scientific research community. Additional information about each library can be found at http://www.epa.gov/libraries/libraries.htm.

This guiding document for EPA library network addresses some of the concerns expressed in the 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Environmental Protection Agency: EPA Needs to Complete a Strategy for Its Library Network to Meet Users’ Needs. It emphasizes the target of “a professional staff person in every library” and goes far in demonstrating how a dispersed team can work together effectively utilizing some advanced tools and “best practices” (e.g., monthly conference calls, a listserv for EPA librarians). The group is wrestling with the need to capture the institutional knowledge of library staff (i.e., “How do you handle…?”), recognizing that this could become a model for the agency itself where younger EPA staff need to learn why the agency acts more deliberately than they might like, for example, in its use of social networking tools.

Contents of the Plan

The Strategic Plan supports the library network’s mission as “an essential information partner with EPA staff and the public…” and vision “by providing timely and accurate information in appropriate formats at the point of need.” Everyday activities of the libraries are guided by five principles:

  1. Strive to provide all EPA staff with access to services and collections regardless of location
  2. Provide the public with information services and access to Agency information
  3. Respond to all library requests in a timely manner and in the most appropriate format
  4. Provide library services in alignment with Agency and local missions and priorities
  5. Maximize the use of resources and technologies.

Network priorities stress the need to educate stakeholders as to the value and day-to-day activities of the libraries, though if the libraries were to take a more proactive stance, anticipating the needs of EPA staff and utilizing a variety of mechanisms to get information to individuals before they realize that they need it, then the value of the libraries would be better appreciated. As the library network increases the number and degree of interactions with EPA staff through participation on project teams, the knowledge of the library worker and contributions to the outcomes of the work of others will be recognized.

The SWOT analysis conducted at the end of 2010 identified the internal strengths and weaknesses of the libraries, as well as the external opportunities and threats that exist. The remainder of the strategic plan outlines how the libraries intend to move toward a target state that remedies the inadequacies of the current arrangements, building on the library network’s strengths to take advantage of the opportunities that exist, as well as address both the internal weaknesses and mitigate the effects of external threats. An indication as to possible remedies—new skills, additional technology/tools, funding, top-management support—would help the reader identify what could be done in the short-term and what requires a more thoughtful, longer-term strategic approach.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the plan deal with (1) Library Network Governance and (2) Communications, Outreach, and Training., because movement in these two areas have been less evident than those dealing with the collections and services. In terms of Library Network Governance, the plan talks about how an Agency-wide National Library Council can “provide input on Network goals and direction,” seeking solutions to management and funding issues, facilitating coordination among the Network libraries. While the plan mentions that these individuals will “serve as points of contact between the members’ organizations and the Network, “ it must be clear that Council members are responsible for reporting back to their organizations as well, indicating what the libraries are doing and can do, specifically, for individuals within their organizations. The message that is given by colleagues may be received in a different light than one delivered by the libraries themselves.

Resolution in terms of funding may have the most impact on the work of the libraries as a network. Management of the EPA libraries through a new contract, and possibly a new contractor(s), may help to push the libraries more quickly and resolutely into the forefront of library innovation. If Governance, Communications, and Outreach are addressed properly, the integration of library work into the fabric of Agency activity will be realized. The expansion of training opportunities to an embedded approach of information literacy, utilizing research methods suitable for today’s fast-paced, technology-based environment is critical. Perhaps the orientation portal for new libraries should be expanded to help all new EPA workers understand the possibilities that exist utilizing the EPA library network.

Is It as Bold as It Might Have Been?

Given the interruption in service and the level of effort that has gone into reconstituting and repositioning the EPA libraries in recent years, it seems an insult to point out the deficiencies of a strategy that has been carefully crafted by dedicated individuals. However, this is a conservative, traditional library plan at a moment in time when an innovative strategic approach would most likely be welcomed and embraced. The EPA libraries could have taken a lead, creating a new model for federal agency libraries.

The Strategic Plan presented is good, but limited to expectations from the last century. It is not innovative enough for the 21st century, taking into account what we know is working for commercial entities and adapting those techniques for the library network and government sector. Perhaps we will see evidence of this in later, more detailed implementation plans for each action outlined in this strategy, but for now, the plan can be described as good, comprehensive, but predictable. Where is the daring that is needed today?

While the plan presents target states for each of the four key areas—EPA library network governance, services, collections (electronic and physical), and communications outreach and training—setting goals, actions to be taken, and a timeframe (Phase 1, 2, or 3), the plan is not specific enough, with no measures of outcomes indicated. One measure that could help the network avoid the conditions that led up to the closure of libraries just a few years ago might be that of adaptive efficiency. If uncertainty is the “new norm,” then the libraries that adjust best to change will be most successful. What is the network’s adaptive efficiency quotient today? Can it be measured and improved upon over time? What’s really holding the EPA libraries back from doing what they know is needed, wanted, and expected?

The Strategic Plan emphasizes the benefits of the EPA libraries operating in consort with one another, but ignores the environmental libraries located throughout the nation. Calling on the wisdom of their knowledgeable staffs and tapping into their resources and collections could be a model for other federal agencies. If ever there was a time for public-private partnership, this is it. Having several of these individuals on an external advisory board might help to shape environmental research, nationwide.

Actions Taken by EPA Library Network

The EPA library network strategic plan is just one of several actions resulting from the Needs Assessment Report (August 17, 2009). Some of the work described in the Strategic Plan is already underway, and these other actions demonstrate how quickly the network and the agency are moving on the highest priorities. Other actions of note include the following:

  1. Increased operating hours and availability of library reference staff: Live Chat Reference is available from 8AM-8PM (EST), Monday – Friday. This allows the agency to leverage the expertise of its centers of excellence. Ten libraries participate, committing to two hours a day fielding reference calls. A master schedule allows rolling from east coast to west as the day progresses. Also, several libraries remain available more than their scheduled two hours on a totally voluntary basis.
  2. A national training program provides increased training for EPA staff from the desktop: A few tutorials (using Captivate with voiceover) and GoToWebinar classes have been created/conducted and are expected to expand in the coming year(s). Individual libraries conduct the training which is open to all EPA staff. Templates for the “handouts” have been developed to ease the burden on individual libraries and create a standard for their content. Vendors may be called on to conduct the EPA staff training on individual databases. In the future, the tutorials created by the EPA libraries concerning “how to conduct environmental research” might be made public for all scientists, researchers, and interested parties to gain expertise as well.
  3. Customer service feedback has been centralized and formalized: A link to provide feedback is inserted at the end of each email that is sent out following delivery of a service. People are linking through, though not consistently. However, feedback on services provided has been positive. More importantly, the responses to this SurveyMonkey questionnaire are reviewed and reported back to the libraries each month. Hopefully, each library is addressing its own deficiencies and learning from the successes of the other libraries in the network. A blog where people could post “how I use the EPA library” might help others imagine similar instances where they also could call on the library collections and/or the expertise of the library staff.
  4. Digitization of EPA publications: All materials that were sent to Cincinnati in boxes from EPA libraries when they were closed/scaled back have been dealt with satisfactorily. All unique items in the catalog have been digitized, that is, all items where there is only one copy available among all of the EPA libraries. In 2010, important materials of which the libraries hold multiple copies were digitized, with two print copies held (one copy available for circulation, and a non-circulating second print copy held in a dark archive); the digital copy is available through National Environmental Publications Internet Site (NEPIS). Catalog records link to the digital copy in NEPIS and searchable PDFs have been created for easy search and download to MyEPAdocs that can be maintained by the user. This year, the collections of three repositories will be digitized—Headquarters, Cincinnati, and Research Triangle Park, NC. What is perhaps the most innovative element of the digitization effort is the public feedback on digitized documents that allows people to inform EPA about a poorly scanned document, unclear image, or skewed page, for example. Copyright issues for digitization of some EPA grant materials have yet to be resolved.
  5. Cataloging: Records for material purchased for the EPA libraries are downloaded from OCLC, with minor changes made. EPA documents are cataloged by EPA librarians who submit these records to OCLC to assure accuracy of the record being used by non-EPA libraries. Cincinnati catalogs for the EPA libraries for free; some libraries choose to buy hours from headquarters to catalog items for them. In FY09, the catalog was upgraded (Oracle with Cold Fusion front-end). All modules are available to all libraries, though not all libraries choose to use each module (e.g., circulation).
  6. EPA desktop library available via the intranet for EPA staff: Tools added to the desktop since the library network was invigorated include electronic book collections, Web of Science, and access to standards. The EPA library network uses Serial Solutions (http://www.serialssolutions.com), but there is no federated search capability available to researchers that permits searching across databases, backfiles of journals, and electronic books.
  7. Policies and procedures for the EPA library network: Twelve policies/procedures have been drafted for the EPA library network, including cataloging, communications, disaster preparedness, and digitization. Related to this, all libraries in the network meet minimum guidelines in terms of staffing (per user/request) and services offered, either onsite or through a service provider. All libraries are leaner (and meaner) than they were in 2007 when the libraries were scaled back. Each has a smaller footprint in terms of facility size, on-site collections, and staffing, though document digitization and Live Chat Reference resolve some issues.

In this fortieth anniversary year for the library network, it’s great that we can track the progress being made by consulting this. While the strategic goals stated in this plan are clear, the performance measures with stated targets and outcomes expected for each are not. We look forward to more detailed action plans where every activity has a performance indicator that can be measured for year-over-year comparison of results and related accomplishments.


Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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