The Return of EPA’s Libraries

In what has to be one of the most wrong-headed approaches to cost-cutting, the Environmental Protection Agency decided to close many of its libraries and curtail hours and holdings at others. That these facilities were sometimes the only publicly accessible repository of important gray-literature filings and reports on environmental issues and data made ludicrous the agency’s claim that its library shutdowns wouldn’t affect research by its employees or the public.

Not surprisingly, outside public-interest groups—notably, the DC-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility—and internal agency scientists began decrying the proposal almost as soon as word of this planned cost-cutting emerged, two years ago. But EPA began boxing up its publications and shuttering the libraries anyway.

There was a promise to digitize all important holdings, so that they could become instantaneously available to users in the future. But we all know how well such digitizing efforts go. They’re slow, expensive, and take lots of work to correct frequent mistakes by digital page scanners and readers. So in practice, much of the material would be in limbo for a long while, if not forever.

Last year, Congress took an interest in the issue and earmarked $1 million for EPA to open those libraries again. As of now, three of EPA’s 10 regional libraries are closed—those in Chicago, Dallas, and Kansas City (Kansas)—as well as the agency’s headquarters and chemical libraries in Washington, DC. Bending to pressure, EPA has agreed to begin reopening the shuttered facilities.

Two months ago, the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog organization, chastised EPA for the way it had set about altering its library system and recommended that the agency halt further efforts to shut down or alter the network “until it takes corrective actions to . . . justify its decision to reorganize the network” and improve outreach to users and oversight of the reorganization.

In a report to Congress, about a month later, EPA vowed to re-open its facilities “on or before Sept. 30.” However, the libraries may be in new locations, it said, and the two DC libraries will be consolidated at one site. Hours may vary, but EPA has pledged to “provide access for EPA staff and public patrons at least four days per week on a walk-in basis or by appointment during core business hours.”

Of course, these libraries cost just a few million dollars per year to maintain. The agency’s budget? Only a projected $8 billion, this coming year. Clearly, mothballing all of its libraries would remove just a drop from the bucket of spending by this, one of the administration’s smaller agencies. So why pick on the libraries? I wonder, now……..

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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