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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2006
DOI:10.5062/F4BC3WG

URLs in this document have been updated. Links enclosed in {curly brackets} have been changed. If a replacement link was located, the new URL was added and the link is active; if a new site could not be identified, the broken link was removed.

Viewpoints

ALA and the EPA National Library Network

Fred Stoss
Associate Librarian for the Biological and Environmental Sciences and Mathematics
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, New York
fstoss@buffalo.edu

Copyright 2006, Fred Stoss. Used with permission.

Last February, the nonprofit group, PEER -- Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- sent out a press release that shocked the library world: The proposed budget submitted by the Executive Office of Management and Budget included a reduction in the fiscal year 2007 budget for the EPA Libraries of roughly 80 percent. $2.0 million would be cut from a $2.5 million operating budget for the U.S. EPA National Library Network (27 regional, laboratory, research, and other libraries), along with an additional reduction of $500,000 (roughly 50 percent) in the agency's subscriptions.

What appeared to be drastic budget cuts to the EPA Libraries was actually an acknowledgement of a series of proposed "cost reductions" to the EPA Libraries proposed by the staff of the EPA's own Office of Environmental Information (OEI). As early as November 22, 2005, the EPA librarians drafted a report indicating how the agency libraries might deal with such cuts, despite a {report prepared by Stratus Consulting} in 2004 indicating a rather large benefits-to-cost ratio for money spent in a variety of library services and functions, including reference, document delivery, database searching, bibliographic instruction, etc.

Since the FY 2007 budget was passed retaining the drastic cuts to the EPA Libraries, several regional libraries have closed (Dallas, Chicago, Kansas City, and New York City, which has replaced its Region 2 Library web site with a series of environmental quotations). Others have greatly reduced services to EPA research, regulatory, policy, and enforcement staff (Boston, San Francisco). EPA Headquarters Libraries have closed or are in the process of closing, and nearly all public access to the EPA Libraries has ceased.1

The American Library Association, through its Washington Office, Government Documents Round Table, Federal and Armed Forces Round Table, and Committee on Legislation (but not the ALA Task Force on the Environment or its co-chairs) worked to develop a response to this news. A statement was issued protesting the budget cuts. ALA and other library associations sent a joint letter to the EPA, as well as letters of concern to Senate and House leaders. Concerned members were urged to write to their own senators and representatives and key congressional committees.

Throughout all of this, personnel in the Office of Environmental Information have been citing their transformation of library services and resources to the desktops of their staff and public. There is an ongoing effort to digitize more than 50,000 government documents and make them available online. However, monographs and journals are being boxed and put "in stasis" in basements and other warehouse-like facilities. EPA staff are now finding that cancellation of online subscriptions has resulted in the loss of several years' access to journals and other serials. A disclaimer on the EPA Libraries home page reads: "Beginning October 1, 2006, EPA is transitioning to the new 'National Framework for the Headquarters and Regional Libraries.' This document describes the new model EPA will implement to ensure that the public continues to receive quality library services."

However, as has been reported vigorously by PEER, many of EPA's own scientists, policy analysts, and enforcement agents continue to dispute this claim. EPA employees, the labor unions representing them, ALA, and other library associations continue to argue that what the EPA has done is inadequate and that their current actions are and will continue to jeopardize the agency's missions. Democrats in the House of Representatives have recently asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review the EPA Library situation, voicing their concerns about the accessibility of library collections.

Could ALA and others have prevented these closings and the catastrophic losses associated with what was most likely the world's largest environmental library and information network?

I doubt it. The EPA has been transforming its libraries into a more digital environment for many years, and some of those plans have been presented and discussed at ALA meetings, discussion sessions, and library open houses. The EPA Libraries were doing what many other libraries are also doing in converting collections to more convenient and powerful online platforms, and providing instruction to end users to become more proficient and efficient searchers. (EPA has been digitizing portions of its collections, but has been mute on what it is doing to its collections of reference books and other monographs which they do not have the authority to digitize. These materials are being put into boxes and removed from library shelves.)

Could the EPA have averted such a public relations catastrophe?

It could have and it should have. The intent of the EPA's Office of Environmental Information in 2005 was to propose drastic and draconian "cost reductions" with no adequate management plan and no budget allocations to ensure that the transformations would be carried out without jeopardizing access to the collections, services, training, and other library-sponsored programs. Had the OEI adequately planned a phased conversion of their collections, addressed the issues of loss of content upon cancellation of online journal subscriptions, and given solid assurances to its own cadre of co-workers and the public at large that there would be no loss of information and no elimination or reduction of services (which could have been feasible), we would not be seeing the tragic loss of a major scientific and technical library collection. The lack of a cogent management strategy early in the process of restructuring the EPA's national library network was one of the most frequent criticisms.

Personnel in the Office of Environmental Information should have embraced every opportunity given to them to outline their intentions at meetings of library associations, such as ALA and the Special Libraries Association. They should have rigorously sought the professional opinions and advice of their colleagues in other libraries who are actively modernizing, streamlining, and enhancing collections and services. EPA's library managers in the OEI should have been much more active in their professional associations and sought their assistance in promoting their concepts of a true 21st century library, and they should have shared that vision with the library community. Contracts with the various entities with which the EPA outsources its missions and functions should contain clear provisions to ensure that contract librarians not only are members of their professional organizations, but that they be allowed to develop strong professional relationships with other librarians and library networks.

The EPA gets a failing grade for its "cut and run" strategy to eliminate service and remove access to its collections, and for its failure to convince librarians even within its own network -- and countless numbers of EPA scientists, policy makers, and regulatory and enforcement staff -- that it would digitize its collections and improve access.

What could have been a shining example of transforming a 35-year old, time-tested, and battle-hardened National Library Network for the Environment, has become just one more example of the actions of a presidential administration that has been one of the most hostile to its own library, information, and data resources.

A Sub-committee on Federal Libraries has been created within the ALA Council Committee on Legislation to "more fully assess the current situation of federal libraries." This bold initiative stems directly from a series of resolutions passed by the Council at its 2006 annual meeting. One was specific for the EPA Library Network, and others apply more generally to federal libraries, information and data centers, and other components of the U.S. federal information infrastructures. Perhaps, in the future, ALA will be better prepared to prevent further losses of the national treasures we call our federal libraries.2

Notes

1 For example, the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics Library is no longer listed in the EPA inventory of their libraries, see: http://www.epa.gov/natlibra/libraries.htm

2 As this article was being edited, it was reported that the General Services Administration's Library was closed as of October 1, 2006 due to declines in use. (LJ Academic Newswire, Oct. 26, 2006.) It is also noted that members of Congress have called for invetigations of this situation, one within the General Accountability Office, and the other within the Senate Appropriations Committee.


DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ISTL, the Science and Technology Section, or the American Library Association.

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