The EPA's "self-inflicted lobotomy" is about to be reversed -- at least partially. More than a year ago, in response to Bush budget cuts, the agency began dismantling its network of 26 technical libraries, a crucial repository of scientific information for the agency's own researchers and the public. It closed several regional libraries and moved tens of thousands of documents into uncatalogued "information dumps" so that it could digitize those documents. Critics saw the move as an attempt to restrict access to information on health risks, corporate polluters, and other important data, and Congress finally forced it to stop "deaccessioning" its holdings.
Now, as of Sept. 30, the agency has reopened at least four of those closed facilities, and is once again providing library access to the public and its own staffers, according to a notice in the Federal Register.
But the damage inflicted on the EPA's vast collection of scientific, environmental and legal documents may be hard to undo. Jim Retting, president of the American Library Association, testified before Congress in March:
"Unfortunately, there continues to be a lot that we don't know: exactly what materials have been being shipped around the country, whether there are duplicate materials in other EPA libraries, whether these items have been or will be digitized, and whether a record is being kept of what is being dispersed and what is being discarded. We remain concerned that years of research and studies about the environment may be lost forever," he said.
Both the agency and Congress would do well to bear in mind Carl Sagan's words: "I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries."