Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Spring 2000

Training Future Science Librarians: A Successful Partnership Between Academia and the United States Environmental Protection Agency

Kristen Conahan Roland
Adjunct Instructor
School of Information and Library Science
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
US EPA Library
Research Triangle Park, NC


The School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has operated a library for the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Research Triangle Park, NC for more than 25 years. The unique contract partnership provides the opportunity for master's level students to acquire practical experience working in a science library while taking classes. More than 280 former student interns have continued onto careers in academic, corporate/special, public, and school libraries, or have taken information science-oriented positions with different companies across the country. This network of former interns speaks to the value of providing the opportunity for practical experience during the master's degree process, and demonstrates that privatization or outsourcing of services can be a "win-win" situation for those involved.


Twenty-five years ago, budgetary issues forced the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) facility located in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina to look for an alternative means of staffing its research library. The result was a successful partnership between the EPA and the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (SILS UNC-CH). Today, there is a network of more than 280 information professionals who began their careers as EPA interns. In the words of one former intern, "I feel I greatly benefited from my experience as an intern, and learned much about providing quality information services to scientific researchers." The manner in which students gain the experience that enables them to function as independent librarians will be highlighted below.


The EPA internship program -- begun in response to a Nixon administration hiring freeze -- is the result of the foresight of EPA administrators and former SILS Dean Edward Holley. Back in the early 1970s, Dr. Holley saw the possibilities inherent in the academic-government partnership. When approached by local federal employees who wondered if there might be a way for the University to provide library services, Dr. Holley recognized that such a collaboration would provide additional student funding as well as a hands-on component to complement what was being taught in the classroom. The resulting work-study program has been a success; EPA researchers have access to a library that provides a wide range of services at a high level of expertise, and UNC-CH SILS has, in essence, a working laboratory for its students.

The major focus of the scientific investigation that has taken place in Research Triangle Park over the years has been air pollution. EPA laboratories study the health effects of various air pollutants on animals and plants, look for ways to track and model air pollution, and engineer methods of controlling and containing pollutant emissions. There is a group of scientists working to ensure research quality oversight, as well as a group of people actually writing the regulations that govern industry and states. While almost all work relates to air pollution in one way or another, the materials required by researchers and used by library staff vary widely. The collection includes a great number of resources devoted to biomedical and toxicological topics. There are also materials that cover basic chemistry, physics, and engineering, as well as a large body of regulatory and government documents.

The breadth of exposure to the variety of resources has made the internship program quite valuable. Students interested in health sciences are able to gain by working with the biomedical and toxicological titles, while students more interested in government regulations and documents have equal opportunity to become familiar with those resources. The result is a well-rounded intern who has been exposed to a wide variety of scientific and governmental information.

Current Operations

Today, the Library contract staff at the EPA's Environmental Research Center facility includes three full-time professional librarians, one full-time library technical assistant, one part time shelver, and several student interns. The three full-time librarians oversee day-to-day operation of the Library and spend time supervising and training student interns. The primary responsibilities of the library technical assistant include managing the serials collection, repairing library materials, and ensuring that library supplies remain stocked. The shelver maintains order in the stacks and tracks usage of library materials. Student interns take responsibility for five different processes, including the handling of interlibrary loan transactions, answering reference questions, cataloging and adding material to the library's collection, performing online searches for researchers, and managing a branch library as a solo librarian.

The student interns make a commitment to work half-time in the Library for one year, and have the opportunity to rotate through three library departments on a semester-long basis. Interns participate in all phases of the work that takes place within the Library, and gain experience utilizing a wide variety of tools and techniques. Additionally, the nature of the program ensures that the student is able to see how the departments within the Library work together and affect one another. Because the EPA Library is often the first "library" job that a student has, much time and effort are devoted to training and performance oversight.

Interlibrary loan (ILL) is frequently the first stop for new student interns because it provides an overview of library resources and tools, and of the varied research being conducted in the laboratories across the EPA-RTP campus. Students receive guidance on the procedures undertaken to perform each task associated with the rotation; the supervisor demonstrates each procedure and is available for consultation as questions arise. The students become facile with many different ILL tools, including OCLC, Docline, the EPA Online Library System, and various databases used for citation verification; the interns also gain experience interacting with the ILL departments of other organizations, with ILL record keeping, and with the process of tracking down ephemeral materials. Upon completing the interlibrary loan rotation, interns are able to process an incoming request from start to finish; the result is that the researcher receives his or her request in a timely manner, library statistics are recorded as appropriate, and a student intern is capable of functioning at a highly proficient level within the realm of document delivery.

Depending upon a student's preference for technical versus public service, the next stop on the intern's tour of the EPA Library is usually either cataloging or reference services.

The cataloging intern generally is someone who is interested in technical service, and has completed the introduction to cataloging class offered at SILS UNC-CH. Again, training involves an overview of all processes utilized by the EPA Library, as well as direct interaction with the departmental supervisor. Students utilize OCLC's cataloging module to perform both copy cataloging and original cataloging of EPA and other government documents; interns are responsible for ensuring that the records are accurate and mistake-free. Once cataloged, new material is barcoded and assigned call numbers before being integrated into the EPA Online Library System as well as the Library's stand-alone circulation system. Upon completing one month in the cataloging rotation, one EPA intern commented, "I think that my skills as an OCLC searcher are getting stronger every day. I'm having better luck with authority file searches for companies and names, and am finally getting the knack of exploiting the possibilities inherent in each field of the MARC record."

Students more interested in direct public service opportunities often elect to do a rotation through the Reference Department. As the first point of contact for Library clients, the reference intern is responsible for providing information in person, via telephone, fax, e-mail, and traditional correspondence. Because of the highly specialized nature of the research taking place in the EPA's Environmental Research Center, the training for the reference internship is extensive. Interns are given an overview of the role of the Library within the EPA research community and the EPA network of libraries. Typical types of reference requests are discussed, along with strategies and tools commonly used to provide answers. Detailed consideration is given to systems such as the EPA's Online Library System and the Agency's web site, so that interns are aware of techniques that might help them track down an elusive piece of information. The regulatory process is discussed in depth, as are the publications used for the documentation of regulations. As is standard practice in all rotations, interns are provided with extensive guidance, are given lists of contacts, and are instructed that because of the brief nature of their experience, they should always double-check with a supervisor before giving a final negative answer. Supervisors review "Inquiry Tracking Forms" each month to monitor the accuracy and exhaustiveness of the research being provided by the reference intern staff.

The online searching intern usually is someone who has completed the reference rotation, and has a good idea of ongoing projects and research at the Environmental Research Center. Regardless of the level of experience of the intern, the Library supervisor spends a great deal of time working one-on-one with the student. Basic guidelines as to standard policy regarding number of prints, format, post-processing, etc. are given, as well as step-by-step directions for some of the regular duties such as tracking incoming current awareness searches and mail statistics, obtaining results offline, and creating new alerts. Search request clarification, search strategy formulation, database selection, and search execution and evaluation are conducted in close consultation with the department supervisor; as interns gain experience and confidence, they become able to handle most search requests in an independent manner. The primary tool utilized for online searching is Dialog; some of the more commonly used databases include Medline, Toxline, Embase, Biosis, EI Compendex, NTIS, Applied Science and Technology, Energy Science and Technology, Pollution Abstracts, Environmental Bibliography, and CA Search.

Most often, serving as the solo librarian of a small satellite library is an intern's final rotation. At that point, the intern is familiar with day-to-day operations in the main library, and can handle the variety of incoming requests. The solo librarian provides reference service to a group of researchers working off-site. The intern also manages the collection of books and documents, tracks and orders serials, updates the intranet web page, and oversees the publication and distribution process of a series of EPA documents. This intern has access to many of the same tools that are available in the main library, and is instructed to utilize the services of the main library as back-up when necessary. Processes and responsibilities associated with the position are provided in great detail, and the intern works in close communication with his or her supervisors. The benefit of the solo librarian rotation is summed up by one of the former interns: ". . .I am gaining insight into collection development, budgeting, and some library administrative work. . .To me this is a prime example of why the EPA internship is extremely good preparation and experience for future jobs."

At any one time, there are additional library projects to which all interns contribute. Recent projects have included retrospective cataloging of portions of the collection, a collection use study, and the creation of training materials. Since 1985, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Library (also located in Research Triangle Park, NC) has utilized hours on the EPA/UNC-CH SILS contract, and employs student interns as well.


Beyond the obvious benefit of providing a working "laboratory" through which students are able to apply classroom concepts through hands-on training, over the years the contract has provided millions of dollars in student funding. But UNC-CH SILS isn't the only beneficiary of this unique partnership. As a government agency funded by taxpayers, the EPA enhances its role as a public service organization by fostering the growth and development of future science and government librarians. Additionally, the network of former interns serves as an "unofficial" professional association, automatically conferring the benefit of collegiality among peers that is often reserved for more structured organizations. Because of the frequent rotation of staff, the Library is constantly presented with new ideas and insights that challenge conventional practice, which may lead to implementation of new and innovative processes, systems, and services. Finally, by virtue of the 11-mile proximity of the EPA Library to the UNC-CH campus, the EPA Library frequently is the site of class-related student papers and projects. The reward? Comprehensive, thoughtful reports and analyses of systems and services completed under the tutelage of a top-notch information and library science faculty that are available to the Agency for free and at a level not required under the current contract.


The partnership between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has left a lasting legacy in the world of information services. Many of the area's corporate and special libraries employ at least one former intern, as do the libraries of Duke University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In addition, there are former interns working in a variety of settings across the country. Perhaps the program's value is best stated by a former intern, "As much as the UNC program at SILS, the EPA Library internship has given me my education. I couldn't be more grateful, or wish the program more success."


Lowry, S. 1993. Information Interns. Endeavors 10(2):12-13.

Robertson, W.D. 1976. UNC-EPA Internship Presents Opportunity for Students. Special Libraries 67: 353-357.


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