The EPA Libraries: Awareness and Action: The EPA Budget Cuts May Not Be the Last Time the Feds Attempt to Limit Public Access to Scientific Information

By Kelly, James | Information Outlook, February 2008 | Go to article overview

The EPA Libraries: Awareness and Action: The EPA Budget Cuts May Not Be the Last Time the Feds Attempt to Limit Public Access to Scientific Information


Kelly, James, Information Outlook


As law librarians, we understand the importance of information access and the vital services librarians provide to their users. We also understand that the pervasive notion that "everything is online" leaves libraries only as a storage facility of last resort to many potential users. The recent controversy over the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") libraries highlights the willingness of policymakers and elected officials to exploit this public misperception to advance their own agendas. This article provides a brief background of the recent cutbacks at the EPA libraries, along with the political wrangling that followed. It serves as a cautionary tale for all librarians.

In 1971, the EPA established a network of libraries to house legal, scientific, and technical information. By 2003, the network housed 504,000 books, 3,500 journal titles, 25,000 maps, and 3.5 million microfilm materials in 26 physical libraries around the country, including 10 regional libraries. (1) The network currently uses an online catalog. (2) In 2005, there were 728,362 visits to EPA library Web pages. (3) This catalog is used by a wide variety of patrons, including scientists, lawyers, research and consulting organizations, and the public at large.

The collection provides important information about environmental risks and governmental policy. As described on the library systems' Web site, the network "contains a wide range of general information on:

* Environmental protection and management.

* Basic sciences such as biology and chemistry.

* Applied sciences such as engineering and toxicology.

* Extensive coverage of topics featured in legislative mandates such as hazardous waste, drinking water, pollution prevention, and toxic substances." (4)

Many of the resources are "unique" and can only be accessed through the EPA library network.

In early 2006, the Bush Administration announced that the budget for fiscal year 2007 (beginning October 2006) would cut $1.5 million from the regional libraries and half a million from the EPA headquarters library. The EPA headquarters library only had a budget of $1 million before this announcement. Before President Bush's budget was approved by Congress, drastic changes were made by the director of the EPA, Stephen L. Johnson. The libraries in Chicago, Dallas, and Kansas City were closed to walk-in traffic along with the Chemical Library and the headquarters repository in Washington, D.C. The other EPA libraries cut their hours.

A workgroup report from the EPA made suggestions on how to deal with the budget cuts. The collections would have to be "dispersed," and "responsible dispersement" meant the collection had to continue to be accessible to anyone needing access. The recommended method of dispersal included weeding multiple copies of items, boxing materials, cataloging and labeling of boxed materials, and updating the library catalog to reflect new locations. Such dispersal, the report said, would have to be complete before the fiscal year began. The report included examples of the cost of such dispersal, but gave no indication how libraries on the verge of major budget cuts were expected to pay. It also gave no plan to oversee the dispersal, nor did it provide any means for public comment. (5)

The subsequent method of dispersal did not meet the standard of "responsible dispersal" called for by the EPA's own report. Many of the materials were boxed up and became accessible only through interlibrary loan. Interagency e-mails and personal accounts later reported that some journals and other materials were simply discarded. Librarians and scientists feared that unique information available only through the EPA library system was being destroyed.

The EPA justified the closures by saying that much of the material was or would be available online. Even now, almost two years later, much of the material is not available online.

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The EPA Libraries: Awareness and Action: The EPA Budget Cuts May Not Be the Last Time the Feds Attempt to Limit Public Access to Scientific Information
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