Envisioning the Environment: The U.S. EPA Web Site

By Affelt, Amy | Online, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview
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Envisioning the Environment: The U.S. EPA Web Site

Affelt, Amy, Online

As corporate librarians, we've all been there--the vague research request on a scientific topic that is outside the realm of our everyday areas of expertise. But when that request concerns human health and the environment, a seemingly ordinary reference query takes on a much greater sense of urgency and importance. When lives are literally "on the line," it is a huge and daunting obligation to provide comprehensive and credible research and data to our clients. Whether the topic is nuclear power, toxic chemicals, industrial waste, or just everyday gasoline, the information we provide is oftentimes the basis for decision-making that may ultimately affect generations of people. Sometimes the research request isn't based on anything as dire as life and death, but unearthing environmental information can affect business decisions and deals.

In the staid and serious world of environmental science, the research we provide must be as accurate and timely as possible and be based upon highly scientific test methodology. Governmental data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the gold standard in this field.


The EPA Web site [www.epa.gov] is similar to all government sites in that it contains an overview of the agency's mission, structure, strategic plan, budget, offices, and staff. Upon opening the site, visitors are greeted with the agency's daily news briefs and information about current projects. There are also the familiar basic tips and hints for citizens, a la "What You Can Do to Save the Planet." Visitors can register for e-mailed updates on EPA activities, and also check a map of the nation's air quality. However, the real wealth of the EPA Web site lies in its authoritative data on environmental laws, regulations, research, standards, compliance, and enforcement.

The site is organized in a straightforward way that makes it a valuable tool for a full complement of users, from elementary school students to Ph.D. scientists and engineers. It also contains critical resources for information professionals, from nonprofit community groups and grassroots organizations to law firms and auto mobile manufacturers, working in any organization needing environmental knowledge.

A good entry point to searching for information on the site is Browse EPA Topics [www.epa.gov/epahome/ topics.html]. Browse EPA Topics is a librarian-organized guide to a controlled vocabulary used by environmental scientists and engineers. It contains a short list of 17 environmental subjects, as well as a much longer list of hundreds of environmental keywords, arranged alphabetically. The broad topics serve as portals to the most detailed minutiae of the environmental spectrum. For example, clicking on a topic as broad as "air" brings one to a very detailed list of EPA Air subtopics as well as relevant EPA Web pages.

For information professionals, who may want to employ advanced search techniques rather than peruse the topics, there's the EPA Web site search engine. You can search entire documents, titles, same paragraphs or sentences, and URLs. The search engines supports Boolean AND and BUT NOT, exact phrases, and truncation (an asterisk). Words are automatically stemmed to retrieve tenses and plurals. There is a caveat, however. The search function is located at the top of every EPA Web page, but only searches initiated from the home page apply to the entire site. Searches on other pages search only that page and subsequent pages.

The Terminology Reference System (TRS), located in Information Sources, is another good place for information professionals to verify definitions and to find controlled vocabulary. TRS eliminates confusion among environmental terms whose meanings differ depending upon the context being used. The TRS displays definitions, contextual relationship examples, and hierarchical structures for terms entered in the search box. The TRS is maintained by the site's metadata registry and is continually updated.

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