Resuscitated! the EPA Libraries' Near-Death Experience

By Pearlstein, Toby; Matarazzo, James | Searcher, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Resuscitated! the EPA Libraries' Near-Death Experience


Pearlstein, Toby, Matarazzo, James, Searcher


In February 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), facing its preliminary 2007 fiscal year budget, announced a series of library closures intended to save the agency money. The Bush administration's proposed FY 07 budget for EPA regional libraries was $500,000, an 80% reduction from the previous year's $2.5 million funding (this funding applied to just 10 of the 28 EPA libraries). The agency's reaction--to move for immediate closures and reductions in service--was considered by many within and outside the agency--to give it the most kindly characterization--as precipitous. After all, the budget had yet to go through the congressional approval process that could have provided oversight for how to implement such a significant reduction. Many believed the congressional process would also have offered an opportunity to make a case for restoring some of the funding.

What ensued was more than 2 years of advocacy and intervention by agency employees and their unions, information industry associations, and congressional committees aimed at forestalling or reversing these closures in the interest of two critical constituencies: the public with its need for access to government information supporting public health and environmental issues and EPA's own employees needing to perform their jobs efficiently, effectively, and therefore at less cost. In October 2008, even presidential candidate Barack Obama entered the fray. In a letter to the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Obama shared his views on "inadequate funding for the EPA" and stated, "I strongly oppose attempts... to eliminate the agency's library system." (1)

Thanks to the tireless and sometimes very public efforts of the stakeholders, more than a little success has been achieved in restoring access to critical materials and services, but challenges remain. For example, a recent series of articles in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on the dangers of toxic chemicals in day-to-day products present to the public health and a similarly themed Government Accountability Office (GAO) report focused on the EPA's failure to gather even basic information. (2) Both pieces attribute this failure to weaknesses in the agency's chemicals management and risk assessment programs. The GAO report specifically notes "the EPA lacks adequate scientific information on the toxicity of chemicals that may be found in the environment--as well as on thousands of chemicals used commercially in the United States. ..." (3) It might not be surprising to find out, then, that the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT) Chemical Library is "non-existent," with "its staff, collection, and services placed in the main EPA Headquarters Library" or dispersed to other libraries in the agency during the process of closing and then re-opening the EPA Libraries in 2007. (4) Fortunately, in a March 2008 report to Congress, the EPA stated that the Chemical Library--among others--would be reopened, which it was in late Fall 2008. (5)

Those interested in a detailed chronology of the "EPA Library Affair" to date, as well as links to background documents, should go to the update compiled by the Special Libraries Association (SLA) Public Policy staff at http://www.sla.org/con tent/SLA/advocacy/EPA/epaupdate.cfm and the American Library Association's compilation of related materials at http:// www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/wo/woissues/government info/fedlibs/epalibraries/epalibraries.cfm.

The Struggle to Quantify the Library Contribution

There is always pressure to reduce budgets. In the EPA's case, as early as 2003, budget pressure took the form of requiring that the libraries present to management "a business case" for their existence. However, the resulting report only extrapolated the costs and benefits of maintaining libraries at each EPA regional facility.

Part of the challenges the EPA libraries faced in quantifying their value consisted of how they were, and continue to be, administered. …

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