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Will Budget Constraints Sound a Death Knell for EPA Libraries?
Posted On February 21, 2006
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Another Setback to Accessing Scientific Information

The effect of these closures on the nation's scientific community, including government laboratories, recipients of federally-funded research grants, and policy makers can not be viewed separate and apart from a series of decisions made over the past few years that curtail access to scientific research.

  • In 1999, the Department of Commerce proposed the closing of the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), shifting its paper, microfiche, digital archives, and bibliographic database to the Library of Congress.
  • During the fall of 2002, EPA issued the annual federal report on air pollution, Latest Findings on National Air Quality: 2001 Status and Trends ( minus the section on global warming
  • In 2002, the Department of Education redesigned its Web site, removing information "based on whether it comports with the Bush administration initiatives" or not ("No URL Left Behind? Web Scrub Raises Concerns," by Michelle R. Davis. Education Week, Sept. 18, 2002).

While the scientific community addresses the EPA library budget cuts from a user's standpoint, the library community finds itself faced with another round of downsizing and library closures. Indeed, this is not the first time EPA has closed library/information operations:

  • Washington, D.C. Public Information Center was consolidated with Headquarters Library in 1998 and ceased operation in 2001
  • UNEP-Infoterra/USA ceased operation on May 16, 2003
  • Hotline supporting solid waste and Superfund Initiative closed in 2005.

Where is EPA's commitment to supporting the needs of its research and regulatory staff, of the scientific community, and of public access to information (that is a product of government funding)? If the EPA libraries were federal libraries and not managed by outside contractors, would closure be considered or would another way of reengineering the network be attempted? (The EPA library is outsourced to a contractor, ASRC Aerospace ; Should other contract-based libraries be concerned?

A New Model, a New Approach

While the plans are to close down the libraries, these are only plans. There is still time for the scientific and library communities to come together to voice their concerns with the decision and come up with a possible resolution. The wholesale shutting of library doors is not an appropriate response. If you look at the collections and the way people consult the libraries and their staff, the Web cannot be the definitive answer either.

How can EPA ensure the national capacity to respond to requests for information? Can we change the way in which its library system functions, coordinating spending and services?

  • Might the libraries operate on a cost-recovery basis, charging fees for services rendered?
  • Could libraries specialize by type of support provided instead of across-the-board and work as a true network instead of overlapping holdings and services?
  • If libraries close, dispose of materials that are available elsewhere and ship unique items to EPA libraries that are remaining open; consolidated holdings could remained accessible and available for borrowing.
  • Can the catalog be maintained through a public-private partnership?
  • Should Congress weigh in as the budget process proceeds?
  • Should we create a National Library for the Environment? After all, we have a National Agricultural Library.

The FY 2007 budget cuts dollars, but it does not save money. The benefit-to-cost ratio for EPA library services in 2003 ranged from 2:1 to 5.7:1, taking into account the time saved by providing reference, research, and other services.

Doubtless the U.S. library associations will be expressing their concerns about these announced cuts. Perhaps the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science will weigh in, as it did so effectively in the case of NTIS. As Janice Lachance, CEO of SLA noted: "With this proposal, EPA's leadership is making it more difficult for the agency's policymakers and the public to leverage the extensive knowledge found in high quality, accurate information to make important decisions on our nation's environment, potentially compromising the public's health." It's up to us to point out the errors of their ways.

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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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