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Will Budget Constraints Sound a Death Knell for EPA Libraries?
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Posted On February 21, 2006
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It's less than a month since President Bush announced his American Competitive Initiative that consists of doubling "the federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences," coupled with a permanent research and development tax credit "to encourage bolder private-sector initiatives in technology." What he didn‘t say was that to fund these research efforts, he would cut $2 million that supports a network of 27 libraries, including an electronic catalog of holdings within that network, which is used by those very scientists and corporations whose work he is encouraging. That amounts to four-fifths of the agency's total library budget. How will the work of the libraries' staffs change if these proposed budget cuts are approved?

EPA Library Network

The EPA Headquarters library and its 27 regional libraries:

  • Perform research and interpret results for EPA scientists and technical staff, EPA enforcement staff (e.g., legal, business and scientific/technical research), and the general public
  • Distribute information and bibliographic resources to patrons (e.g., through inter-library loan)
  • Develop current awareness alerts for EPA staff
  • Access information collections within and outside EPA (e.g., search of EPA and commercial databases)
  • Train the public to use EPA databases; train EPA staff to use EPA and commercial databases
  • Develop and maintain library Web pages on EPA's intranet as well as the public Website
  • Manage and administer the individual libraries, including the selection, acquisition, and cataloging of EPA reports and guidance documents, scientific and technical journals (print and electronic), and other legal documents.

The libraries differ in function, scope of collections, extent of services, support of public access, and use of new technologies. In FY 2003, the combined collections included 504,000 books and reports, 3,500 journal titles, 25,000 maps, and 3.5 million information objects on microfilm. The Online Library System is a shared catalog of these resources, allowing staff and the public to locate materials no matter which EPA library might house them. Now, these documents would not disappear, but they would be harder to locate and, once identified, harder to acquire a copy.

With an average of 2.5 to 2.755 contract staff in each of the 10 Regional Libraries (some regions include law library or program-specific library staff) and five at EPA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., the libraries are able to respond to more than 134,000 research requests from EPA staff each year as well as catalog (and maintain) an estimated 50,000 "unique" documents (i.e., available nowhere else). In FY 2005, EPA libraries provided 52,975 resources (e.g., books, journal articles) to patrons; there were 728,362 visits to EPA library Web pages.

The cost to operate and maintain the network of regional libraries is roughly $6.2 million annually (FY 2003 data). The FY 2007 budget proposes a reduction of $1.5 million in regional support and $500,000 from EPA headquarters library. (That is half of the EPA headquarters library funding.) Each region is expected to take its own approach to managing budget challenges: by reducing hours, eliminating services, reducing subscriptions to journals/databases, firing staff, or closing altogether.

The library catalog and the network of libraries are consulted by individual scientists, research organizations, consulting firms, lawyers, and the general public. This is a unique collection of resources, with regulatory and background documents providing an understanding of the intent of regulations when enacted years before. These are crucial to assessing the response to environmental risks at that time, what people knew about an issue, and the government's policy concerning environmental problems. EPA libraries have the record back to the beginning of the modern regulatory period.

Ruth Liddy of Gradient Corp. (http://www.gradientcorp.com) frequently consults the online catalog to identify pertinent material, borrowing materials an average of once a month. Over the years, she guesses that her firm has borrowed from each of the EPA libraries. She compliments the "eminently searchable" database that is "well-maintained." If it's not in EPA's catalog, it's probably not accessible anywhere. She notes that:

  • Though EPA maintains one of the best government Web sites, only about one-third of the documents in the EPA collections are available in full text on the Web. If there is no money to run the libraries, will there be any support for digitizing the rest of the collection to make the documents accessible? Can the material be digitized elsewhere (and become available through NTIS)?
  • The size of the reports make reviewing them online quite cumbersome. Even if one could locate a copy of a report, faxing or photocopying a 300+ page document is not likely to happen; interlibrary loan from an EPA library is the most cost-effective and environmentally-sound route to obtaining access to many of these documents.


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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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