Why would a federal agency trash its libraries?

by Jeff Ruch



It takes a special talent to make the topic of library management controversial, but the Environmental Protection Agency seems to have a real knack for self-inflicted wounds. EPA gave itself a black eye and enraged librarians throughout the country last year, when, without public notice or congressional consultation, it began the process of dismantling its network of 26 technical libraries.

The original rationale EPA offered for slashing libraries was fiscal, but it estimated only $1.5 million in savings from a more-than-$8 billion budget. It seemed a most curious economy.

The closures started during the last few months of the Republican-controlled Congress when budgetary oversight was not high on the agenda. Aside from its claim of fiscal austerity, EPA said the closures were part of an effort to “modernize” its information systems by digitizing thousands of documents, page-by-page. In the meantime, whole collections are now inaccessible to both agency and outside researchers.

Last October, for example, EPA abruptly closed its Washington, D.C., headquarters library and, shortly thereafter, shuttered its world-renowned specialized library on the effects and properties of chemicals. This latter action came with no notice to the scientists who rely on those holdings to analyze new pesticides and toxic chemicals. The sudden shutdown of the chemical library galvanized public attention because it so clearly hampered needed research without achieving any economic benefit. Then, after it had already begun closing libraries, EPA discovered that copyright limitations prevented it from digitizing materials not written by EPA staff. As a result, hundreds of reports from the agency’s contractors, as well as academic and corporate researchers, will remain in hard copy, but housed in one of three “repositories.”

At times, EPA’s actions have taken on an Orwellian cast, as thousands of documents and whole collections were hastily dispersed to anyone willing to accept them. The three repositories of documents have grown into giant information dumps whose contents will remain un-cataloged for years to come, and in Chicago, the largest regional library, furnishings — shelves, desks and cabinets worth some $40,000 — were sold for $327.

Under pressure from a rising chorus from within Congress following the 2006 elections, EPA temporarily halted further closures, but much of the damage had already been done. More than a third of its libraries have already downsized through what EPA calls “de-accessioning,” which is defined as “the removal of library materials from the physical collection.”

Significantly, the effects are also being felt outside the scientific community. A briefing paper for the agency enforcement director concludes that the loss of library access will substantially impede investigations and prosecutions of polluters. Citizen groups seeking information about local Superfund sites are now finding reports unavailable — that is if the citizens even knew of the existence of a report to ask for it.

Even the fiscal rationale for library closures came completely unraveled after internal studies showed that full-library access saves between $3-$7 in professional staff time for every dollar invested. In other words, librarians locating documents for agency specialists saved EPA far more than the total agency library budget. Now, every EPA staff member will have to serve as his or her own librarian. Moreover, the agency’s plan to digitize documents page-by-page will certainly be far more expensive — EPA says it has no cost estimate — than the paltry savings from the closures of library collections.

The emerging motive cited by critics of the EPA’s anti-library drive is disquieting. A petition, signed by the presidents of 16 local unions representing at least 10,000 EPA scientists, engineers, environmental protection specialists and support staff, charged that the intent behind the library closures was simply “to suppress information on environmental and public-health related topics.” But the effort to hamstring the EPA goes beyond libraries and includes diverting money away from research, offering early retirement to senior scientists and ultimately closing down research laboratories. As its in-house scientific staff shrinks, EPA is relying more and more heavily on corporate research in making health and safety decisions. This self-lobotomy at EPA will leave a public agency that is far less capable and independent, and as we enter the final months of the Bush administration, EPA managers seem determined to accelerate the self-destruction.

Jeff Ruch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.og). He is executive director of PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, in Washington, D.C. © High Country News