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Some Progress But Not Enough: GAO Issues Update on the EPA Library Network
Posted On November 8, 2010
Thirty-three months after its assessment of the 2007 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) library reorganization was issued (EPA Needs to Ensure That Best Practices and Procedures Are Followed When Making Further Changes to Its Library Network, GAO-08—304, Feb. 28, 2008), the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) released its Report to Congressional Requesters (GAO-10-947) on the EPA library network, EPA Needs to Complete a Strategy for Its Library Network to Meet User Needs, dated Sept. 30, 2010. GAO’s 2008 report condemned the EPA for not following best practices and procedures when deciding to close five of its libraries, reducing hours of operation in four, changing the nature of operations in another, and not adequately informing stakeholders as to the impact those changes might have on their work.

According to that 2008 report, “each EPA library independently decided which materials should be selected for digitization, dispersal, or disposal.” The report emphasized a need “to ensure continuity of library service” and the GAO asked the EPA to do the following:

  1. Develop a strategy to justify its reorganization plans by determining user needs, taking an inventory of EPA information resources, evaluating technological factors (e.g., digitization procedures and online databases) to ensure optimal level of service, evaluating and conducting a benefit-cost assessment for each alternative approach, and reviewing and revising the existing policy and procedures guiding the library network.
  2. Improve its outreach efforts
  3. Include a process that ensures sufficient oversight of the reorganization process and monitors the impact of the reorganization, taking corrective actions as necessary
  4. Implement procedures that ensure that library materials are dispersed and disposed of consistently and properly.

Since then, the library network has made some progress, but not enough, and I would bet that the 65 full-time equivalent library staff would probably agree. When reading the GAO report released on Nov. 1, it’s important to distinguish between indictments of the Agency and the work it was supposed to do from the progress that the library network has made.

A draft outline of a strategic plan was issued in July 2007, but to date no overall strategy for the network is in-place. This interim plan lacks the level of detail required to implement actions (e.g., timetable, associated costs). The needs assessment, which the EPA said was crucial to complete the strategic plan and to determine funding requirements, was outsourced to a consultant; the GAO found it to be flawed. Will we have to wait another 3 years to see a master work plan with activities and tasks, milestones, outcomes, and deliverables?

The EPA digitized 915 documents from its libraries between January 2007 and January 2010, and according to its response to this latest GAO report, it will digitize all unique items in the catalog by the end of this year. (That is, all items where there is only one copy available among all of the libraries.) Next year, important materials that the libraries hold multiple copies of will be digitized, with two print copies being kept, one in depository; one in dark archive, plus the digital copy in the National Environmental Publications Internet Site (NEPIS) database. The library’s catalog records link to the digital copy in NEPIS, and searchable PDFs have been created for easy search and download to MyEPAdocs, which can be maintained by the user.

The GAO reckons that since there is no complete inventory of library holdings, it cannot know whether it has digitized all documents, and cost estimates for digitization are already well above the initial estimates. The digitization project is made more complicated due to complex agreements with third parties and retention of copyright. Other agencies have faced similar restrictions in terms of ownership of copyright for work produced using federal funds, so while these items “remain unavailable online to the public,” the situation can be handled properly over time.

What can the network point to as a success?

Steps have been taken to communicate with stakeholders about the library network and more documents and services are available electronically. However, in each case, more could and should have been accomplished in the years since the EPA library reorganization effort was halted. For example:

  • The catalog was upgraded in FY09, but while all modules are available (e.g., circulation), not all libraries choose to use each module.
  • Tools have been added to the desktop since the library network was reinvigorated, including electronic book collections, Web of Science, and standards, but there is still no federated search tool.
  • Some tutorials have been put online, but more could be helpful for those researchers who wish to explore the tools outside of office hours. While monthly training webinars by database vendors can be helpful, the library could be offer webinars centered on developing information literacy skills as applied to specific “hot” research topics.
  • A link is inserted at the end of each email sent following delivery of a service. An alternate route might be to allow people to create a blog that allows people to post examples of how they use the library. Others seeing these messages might “imagine” similar instances where they could also call on library expertise.

A national library program manager, Deborah Balsalmo, has been hired to bring “focus and cohesion to the network.” The GAO report points to “a number of actions meant to improve library network operation and communication, including working closely with internal and external advisory boards and creating a library policy and related procedures.” However, these efforts are too internally-focused at the expense of measuring outcomes of its efforts. While uniform procedures for implementing the library policy are important, this work is nearly invisible to outsiders who do not understand or appreciate the details. Continuous communication concerning what is being done, and demonstrating progress to each target stakeholder group on a regular basis, is the key to success. The library network could use its advisory board more strategically by making its members responsible for keeping the stakeholder group each represents aware of what the library is doing and making sure that those efforts are in line with what is needed by each target user group.

Where the GAO got it wrong

The latest GAO report highlights the lack of an accurate inventory of the network’s holdings as being a significant obstacle to determining which (and how many) documents “need to be digitized,” contributing to the agency’s inability to “accurately estimate the total cost of digitization or how long it will take.” (Remember, the former name of this agency was the General Accounting Office.) The value of the EPA library network to the nation lies in its ability to enable the agency to accomplish its mission “to protect human health and the environment” and it is access to information, not simply the ability to retrieve documents that is important. How does the library work with EPA staff as it shapes research questions, building on what has come before, either within the agency or elsewhere?

The fact that “about half of the network’s 10 regional libraries are operating with reduced hours” is only an issue if the libraries do not act as a true network. Live Chat Reference is now available from 8AM to 8PM (EST), Monday through Friday, with 11 libraries participating and a master schedule rolling from east to west coast as the day progresses. The issue should be how many research questions are not adequately dealt with in a timely fashion. Only then can a strategic decision be made as to whether the hours need to be increased or advanced technology utilized to satisfy needs not being met. If Live Chat Reference is helpful as a backstop to understaffed libraries within the network, why aren’t all libraries participating? This may hark back to the way in which the libraries are funded (by the regions they serve), but this fundamental question has yet to be addressed. Is this the most efficient or effective way to run a library system in the 21st Century?

It is not enough that all libraries within the network meet MINIMUM guidelines in terms of staffing (per user/request) and services offered (either onsite or through a service provider). Creating web-based forms for interlibrary loan is good, but not something to write home about. Users, and the taxpayers, expect innovation and creativity.

Based on their experiences elsewhere on the internet, users expected improved access to the EPA library network, so advances there are not significant. Service delivery to mobile phones and remote access to the desktop should be possible by now. The library needs to be where users are, so social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter should be next on the radar for the library network to explore. Building on the concept of Centers of Excellence, topic-specific RSS feeds and alert services should be part of the product line of these libraries.

As the library network prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2011, it must begin acting as a true network instead of “a collection of independent local libraries, catering primarily to the needs of local EPA staff and walk-in public patrons.” Let’s hope that the new contractor (or multiple contractors) to be named to manage the Agency’s information management service centers within the month—including collections of information; requests for information; training and outreach; develop services to reach the public and Agency staff at their desktops; and other professional services from the Agency’s records centers, libraries, library networks, docket centers, clearinghouses, public information centers, and hotlines—will be able to realize its vision of a “premier environmental library” with an “emphasis on

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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2/12/2007EPA Libraries: Where Do They Stand Now?
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