Editorial: Protecting Public Access to Environmental Information and Saving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Libraries

Article excerpt

Among the treasures of the environmental information domain are the crown "jewels" of the EPA National Library Network. This national collection of regional, research, and operational libraries in the Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1971 and set into being in 1972. Since then the EPA Library Network has grown and evolved and serves as the information hub of the agency whose mission is "to protect human health and the environment". This unique library network maintains special collections of reports, journals, monographs, government documents, and other resources. Professional staff provide a myriad of reference and referral services, database instruction, data and information searching, and outreach services for EPA employees engaged in research, policy, enforcement, and outreach programs. These same services are also provided for the public atlarge. The thread running among these entities is their common need for access to critical environmental data and information that is provided efficiently, effectively, economically, and equitably.

For more than 10 years, access to the collections and services of the EPA libraries has been evolving. Migration of print materials into digital, full-text formats, development of issues, subject-specific online compilations, creation of user-friendly databases and information gateways have been at the forefront of operations within the EPA Library.1 Carrying out these data and information functions has been so critical to the EPA that a reorganization of the agency was needed to "improve the way we collect, manage, integrate, and provide access to environmental information," stated the EPA Administrator Carol Browner in an October 26, 1999 press advisory announcing the creation of the EPA Office of Environmental Information.

During the autumn of 2005 ominous signs appeared on the horizon for the EPA National Library Network. A once relatively obscure, 10-page report provided an internal library staff overview of the impacts of a proposed $500,000 cut in the EPA Headquarters library budget, and an additional $1.5 million "cost savings" recommended by the Office of Environmental Information that would affect operations in the EPA Regional and research libraries.2 These cuts represent an 80% overall cut in the EPA Libraries' FY '07 budget and would realize the elimination of about one-third of the library network's staff. This situation raised great doubts that the EPA Libraries will be able to function under such proposed budget cuts.3

The library world was stunned when the story of the proposed cuts to the EPA Libraries' budget was released on February 10, 2006 by the watch-dog group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).4 Within one week both the Special Libraries Association5 and the American Library Association6 issued official statements decrying the proposed cuts to the EPA Library Network. On February 24, the American Library Association, the Special Libraries Association, the American Association of Law Libraries, and the Association of Research Libraries issued a joint letter to the Honorable Charles H. Taylor, Chair of the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies of the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations. This letter stated their collective opposition "to the proposed $2.5 [sic] Million cut in the FY2007 budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that will likely result in the closure of the Headquarters Library and many of its 27 regional and research libraries."7

The consulting report prepared for the EPA Library Network in 2004 indicates how effective and economically efficient are the services provided by this library network. Using detailed statistics on the use of various library services a variety of metrics provided a general finding that the library saves the agency and the public tidy sums of money and time. This report indicated that it costs the EPA roughly $6. …