EPA halts library closures

Friday, June 8, 2007

After releasing a plan in August 2006 that would restructure its library system and eliminate several locations, the Environmental Protection Agency has halted further closures of the libraries in response to heavy criticism from lawmakers and advocacy groups.

“EPA is in the process of reviewing its methods of delivering library services. No changes are being made in the EPA Library Network at this time; no changes will be made until we have completed stakeholder input and review,” the EPA said in a May 8, 2007, report to the American Library Association.

EPA’s controversial library plan was developed after the Bush administration’s budget for the 2007 fiscal year left the EPA library system, which is funded through the Office of Environmental Information, with just $500,000 for operations.

The plan would eventually close 10 regional libraries and the headquarters library in Washington, D.C. (The Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City and D.C. libraries were shut down before the closures were halted.) The EPA said these closures were part of a plan to modernize their collections by converting them to digital formats. EPA spokespeople said this digitization process would allow the agency to reach a broader audience.

“By modernizing our libraries, EPA is bringing our cutting edge science to your fingertips, whether you live across the street or on the other side of the world,” Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock said in a Dec. 6 press release.

However, opponents of the plan have reservations about whether the closures are beneficial and whether the digitizing is being handled well.

In her Feb. 6 testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, ALA President and Princeton Public Library Director Leslie Burger raised two concerns with the EPA’s plan for library closure and digitization of the collections.

“In the course of shutting down these libraries, valuable, unique environmental information will be lost or discarded,” she said in her testimony. Burger added that with fewer libraries and staff, “scientists and the public will (also) have limited access to this information. We have a deep concern with limitations these closings would place on the public’s access to EPA library holdings and the public’s ‘right to know.’”

Burger also noted that because current and future equipment compatibility and copyright information, among other factors, have to be considered when digitizing material, the process is slow. However, she said she was especially concerned with the way in which the EPA was handling this process. Materials from the already closed libraries were “dispersed” for digitizing to Research Triangle Park or the National Environmental Publications Internet Site in Cincinnati, but details about how the information was handled were not released. Burger said librarians were concerned that this dispersion may have done long-term damage to the effectiveness of the EPA.

“Unfortunately, there continues to be a lot that we don’t know: exactly what materials are being shipped around the country, whether there are duplicate materials in other EPA libraries, whether these items have been or will be digitized, and whether a record is being kept of what is being dispersed and what is being discarded. We remain concerned that years of research and studies about the environment may be lost forever,” she said.

She noted that overall, there seemed to be no clear plan for the digitization and that the closure of the libraries was done too quickly to evaluate potential concerns.

Despite the concerns raised, the EPA maintains that greater access will be allowed through the online services, and that materials from closed libraries are still available.

“EPA has been establishing a working group of librarians, which includes EPA employees, to ensure the agency’s online library services accomplish our goal of bringing greater access to a broader audience,” EPA Press Officer Suzanne Ackerman told the First Amendment Center. “At the five libraries that no longer have physical space, library services remain available online or through interlibrary loans.”

The EPA acknowledges that the process is complicated and that assessment is needed. Speaking to the Special Libraries Association, Mike Flynn, EPA deputy director of the Office of Information Analysis and Access, reiterated the EPA’s goal of eventually providing a national unified data system for EPA staff, scientists and the community at large but reminded the audience that the changes will be painful and do not happen overnight.

In his speech Flynn discussed the misperceptions about the EPA’s library network recreation, explaining that the changes will enable more efficient distribution of information, especially in the future as more employees become accustomed to working with electronic forms. While correcting misperceptions, however, he says that the agency’s current review of the library network will allow it to determine whether or not the plan should be altered to completely meet future needs.

The EPA did not have much time to respond to initial criticism of its plan. Shortly after the plan was unveiled last fall, Reps. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and John Dingell (D-Mich.) requested in a Sept. 19 letter that the Government Accountability Office investigate the cuts. The GAO granted the request and in November began a review, which remains in progress, of the EPA’s actions.

Under pressure from members of Congress and groups such as the ALA, the EPA announced in January that it would not close additional libraries until more public outreach was done, according to the Library Journal.

In a Jan. 12 letter to House Committee Chairmen Gordon (Science and Technology), Dingell (Energy and Commerce), Waxman (Oversight and Government Reform), and James Oberstar (D-Minn.) (Transportation and Infrastructure), EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson agreed to a 90-day moratorium on both the closure of additional EPA libraries and disposal after digitization of EPA library materials.

Shortly after, on Feb. 6, Johnson testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and said that the EPA would close no more libraries and would not dispose of any documents.

The library system is home to more than 350,000 reports, books, technical journals, audiotapes and videotapes, along with 50,000 primary-source documents not available anywhere else. A 2004 EPA Library Report, “Business Case for Information Services,” said librarians in the system saved EPA staff more than 214,566 hours of research time that year. In addition to providing the agency’s staff with information, the library system serves the public as an access point to EPA information regarding environmental health hazards, technologies, regulations and litigation. The EPA and other government agencies are required, with few exceptions, to make information and records available for the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

The EPA chief information officer issued an interim library policy on April 16 that explains the library network’s responsibilities and governance. External stakeholders such as scientists, researchers and attorneys who use the library’s resources, will review draft procedures developed by EPA library managers on library usage statistics and dispersion procedures, and an independent third party will review the EPA’s draft digitization procedures. Digitization expert Cathy Hartmann of the University of North Texas, will advise the agency in its procedures and techniques at the suggestion of the ALA. While digitization is occurring, physical materials will not be discarded until the procedures are fully reviewed.

Gordon, Dingell, Waxman and Oberstar, in an April 26 letter to EPA administrator Johnson, requested that “all EPA libraries and library materials be preserved intact until the [GAO] investigation is completed and EPA undertakes an appropriate public process (including consultation with Congress) to decide whether and how to proceed with a library modernization process.” In the letter, they refer to the investigation’s tentative findings as revealing what was originally a “severely flawed library closure planning process.”

The EPA will participate in several external conferences over the summer to exchange information and receive further advice from stakeholders, including exhibiting at the June ALA meeting.

Courtney Holliday is a junior majoring in economics and public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.