Close Your Books: Cuts, shutdowns loom for EPA libraries

Some regional libraries maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency will permanently shut their doors because of a proposed cut to their funding, agency librarians and former librarians say. Several libraries have already cut staff and hours, and others are preparing to close by Sept. 30.

The funding cut, advanced by the administration in its proposed budget for 2007, will save U.S. taxpayers about $2 million in direct annual expenses. However, union representatives of thousands of EPA employees maintain that the change will squander the agency’s money in the long run.

The proposed budget cut will affect 10 regional libraries and the headquarters library, which operate on a budget of $3.5 million, EPA says.

“In the next year, I imagine, most of them will be closed,” says Chicago-based Charles Orzehoskie of the American Federation of Government Employees. That union, which represents about half of EPA’s staff, protested the budget cut in a June 29 letter to Congress.

A recent EPA-sponsored study estimated that the 11 affected libraries and 2 other major libraries generated between $13.5 million and $35.7 million in annual value at a cost of $6.2 million. Last year, regional-library staff conducted some 85,000 data searches on behalf of EPA staff. The librarians also performed other services, including thousands of searches for non–EPA users of the libraries.

Closing the libraries will reduce or eliminate the EPA scientists’ access to tens of thousands of unique documents, Orzehoskie says.

“We’re concerned about the public’s access too,” he says. EPA-regulated businesses and state officials are among those who frequently use the libraries’ services.

Some people outside the agency also express concern about the budget cut.

“It’s an affront to the public’s right to know,” says Carol M. Browner, former head of EPA, who is now an attorney in Washington, D.C. For some communities, says Browner, a particular EPA library may be the “only point of access” to certain records about local environmental hazards.

The agency is digitizing unique documents from the libraries’ collections and plans to make them freely available online. This week, an agency statement said, “Once the digitization effort is completed, there will be greater access to EPA collections for both EPA employees and the public.”

Unique documents from the regional collections can be digitized in the next 6 to 9 months, the agency estimates. But several librarians expressed skepticism, saying that it might take years to transfer the collections to the Web.

“I’m a big booster of electronic format, [but] it doesn’t stand by itself,” says Bernadine Abbott Hoduski of Helena, Mont., a retired EPA librarian. Without librarians to help them, she says, scientists will struggle to find data that they seek.

Some library staff have been laid off or have left in anticipation of budget cuts.

“We’re losing the institutional memory with all these people leaving,” says librarian Fred Stoss of the State University of New York at Buffalo, who cochairs the environment task force of the American Library Association. “We don’t think they’ll be able to migrate everything from print to online quickly enough.”

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