EPA Reopens Libraries

After two years, numerous protests by the public, a formal grievance from a government employee union, a critical governmental report, and congressional intervention, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reopened agency libraries it closed as a purported cost-saving measure. The libraries generally are smaller and open fewer hours than before, are now controlled by a political appointee, and may have lost materials in the interim, but they are open to the public. Beginning in 2004, the agency dismantled a significant portion of its library network in response to anticipated budget cuts. Ultimately, six libraries were closed, and four others had their hours reduced. Parts of the collections from the closed libraries were scattered across the network or converted into digital formats, though many records were simply thrown away. Outcry among public interest groups, public employees, librarians, scientists, and others prompted Congress to halt the closings and force EPA to reconsider its network plan.

In December 2007, Congress ordered the libraries reopened and appropriated $1 million for that purpose. The reopened libraries are in Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, and the EPA Headquarters Repository and the Chemical Library in Washington, DC. The libraries, staffed by professional librarians, will provide services to the public and EPA staff via phone and e-mail, and they will be open for a minimum of 24 hours over four days per week on a walk-in basis or by appointment.

In addition to the library reopenings, EPA pledged in a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) to digitize more library holdings to improve online access. The agency's initial digitization report noted that the process is on hold, with almost half of the estimated publications yet to be digitized. EPA claims to be evaluating the digitization process in order to reconcile "some difference of opinion on some of the technical aspects of the project."

As part of EPA's effort to resolve the difference of opinion on digitization, the agency plans to convene a panel of National Library Network stakeholders for their input on the process. The stakeholders will include advisors from the Federal Library and Information Center Committee (FLICC) of the Library of Congress, professional library associations, the scientific community, academia, and the public. No time frame for this process or for restarting the digitization process was mentioned in the agency's report. The MOA negotiated with the employees' union requires EPA to report on the digitization process every three months but sets no specific performance benchmarks.

The EPA status report noted enhancements made to the database that will eventually hold the digitized publications, located in the National Environmental Publications Internet Site (NEPIS). However, these improvements were completed in May, before the union and the agency had signed the MOA.

In a July 21 letter to members of Congress, AFGE called on members to address specific questions about the EPA's plan. The union expressed concern about the amount of resources dedicated to the libraries, including the amount of physical space and shelving; the absence of public involvement regarding the libraries; and an accounting of the funds appropriated for the reopening of the libraries. Additional concerns about the libraries remain, including their control by a political appointee in the EPA's Office of Environmental Information.

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