The EPA closes its scientific libraries, destroys documents

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The EPA closes its scientific libraries, destroys documents

Union of Concerned Scientists – 2007-01-19

WE DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ ENVIRONMENT DEPT.

In keeping with the public’s growing demand for more transparency in Government and with the now undeniable effects of Global Warming and pollution evident to everyone, we see here our Government’s response — closing scientific libraries and destroying documents. I guess they figure if we don’t know about it, it can’t harm us.

Jim

Evidence of Political Interference

The EPA closes its scientific libraries, destroys documents

Union of Concerned Scientists

The EPA has begun closing its nationwide network of scientific libraries, effectively preventing EPA scientists and the public from accessing vast amounts of data and information on issues from toxicology to pollution.

Several libraries have already been dismantled, with their contents either destroyed or shipped to repositories where they are un-cataloged and inaccessible.

Members of Congress have asked the EPA to cease and desist. While the agency claims that it has postponed further destruction of documents, we need you to tell the EPA that scientists and the public need unconstrained access to this critical information to protect our health and environment. UCS is asking concerned scientists and activists to call EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson and urge him to keep the library system open until all materials are available online and sufficient research assistance is available.

Please Note: We’ve received reports that some EPA receptionists are telling UCS supporters that the EPA is simply restructuring and modernizing the system. See below for evidence of why this argument doesn’t hold water.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains a nationwide network of 27 libraries that provide critical scientific information on human health and environmental protection, not only to EPA scientists, but also to other researchers and the general public. The EPA libraries are located in each of 10 regions of the country, at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. and at various EPA laboratories specializing in certain aspects of environmental protection.

In order to fulfill its mission to protect human health and the environment, the EPA must rely on accurate, up-to-date scientific information as well as the findings of earlier studies. To make the best scientific determinations, scientists need access to information regarding the health effects of toxic substances, records of environmental change over time, impacts on specific regions or communities and other issues. To this end, the libraries represent a unique and invaluable source of scientific knowledge on issues from hazardous waste to toxicology to pollution control. Additional benefit to scientific researchers is gained from the expertise of a dedicated library staff. In 2005, library staff fielded more than 134,000 database and reference questions and distributed almost 53,000 books, journal articles, and other resources to EPA researchers and the public.

In February 2006 under the guise of cutting costs, the Bush Administration proposed cutting $2 million out of the $2.5 million library services budget for fiscal year 2007. Such a drastic cut would ensure the closing of most of the library network, but would hardly register as a cost savings against the $8 billion EPA budget.

Despite the fact that Congress has not yet passed the 2007 budget or approved these funding cuts, the EPA has already moved with astonishing speed to close down several of its libraries to both the public and EPA staff. Three regional libraries, the Headquarters Library and a specialized library for research on the effects and properties of chemicals have already been closed, and four additional regional libraries have been subjected to reduced hours and limited access. Some books, reports and other resources formerly housed at these libraries have been sent to three repositories where they remain uncatalogued and inaccessible to the scientists and others who depend upon them. Other materials have already been recycled or thrown away.

While administration officials claim the changes are prompted by budgetary pressures, the existence of a dedicated library system has been shown to actually save money. A 2004 internal EPA report found that the library network saved over 214,000 hours a year in staff time, amounting to cost-savings of $7.5 million—considerably more than the savings gained from cutting the program.

Officials claim the closings are part of a modernization plan, and that all materials will eventually be available online. However, no comprehensive assessment of information needs has been undertaken—making it likely that some unique information will be lost—and no funding exists to carry out the time-consuming and expensive process of making documents available electronically. The end result is that the library resources are already unavailable and the promised electronic access could be years away.

The closure of these libraries and the warehousing of their resources represents an additional barrier to the free flow of scientific information. The EPA will not have the best information readily available when it makes regulatory decisions, negatively impacting the agency’s ability to carry out its mission of protecting human health and the environment.

Many scientists and lawmakers have spoken out in protest of these library closures. Four unions representing 10,000 EPA scientists sent a letter asking Congress to stop the destruction of the library network. A letter from Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA), Bart Gordon (D-TN) and John Dingell (D-MI) has prompted an investigation of the library system by the General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. And members of both the House and Senate have called upon Administrator Johnson to cease and desist with the closures until the investigation is complete and Congress has authorized action. While the EPA has told reporters that the agency is no longer destroying documents, the closed libraries have not reopened and the EPA has not provided a comprehensive plan to make available documents that are currently inaccessible.

UCS is asking concerned scientists and activists to call EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson and urge him to immediately halt the dismantling of the library system until Congress approves the EPA budget and all materials are readily available online.

Myths and Facts: What the EPA has told callers and why this is not accurate

Myth #1: The libraries are not closing.

The Facts: On the EPA’s own library website, the five libraries that have been closed to date have been removed from the list and had their websites partially or completely shut down: the Headquarters Library, Region 5, Region 6, Region 7, and the Office of Prevention, Pollution, and Toxic Substances (OPPTS). The EPA libraries website links to a plan of action for closing many libraries and dispersing or disposing of materials. We also have first-hand accounts from EPA employees that the libraries have been closed.

Also, several newspapers have recently reported or editorialized about the library closures, including:

- Christian Science Monitor, 11/30/06: “As EPA Libraries go Digital, Public Access Suffers”

- Boston Globe editorial, 11/20/06: “Save the Earth’s Libraries”

- Arizona Star, 11/05/06: “EPA Libraries Taking Big Hits: They’re closed or curtailed to cut costs, agency says; critics skeptical”

- Kansas City Star, 12/3/06: “EPA Closings Draw Criticism”

Myth #2: No materials have been destroyed.

The Facts: Ample evidence exists that the EPA has already destroyed documents. The Christian Science Monitor reports that “scientific journals worth hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars were thrown in dumpsters in October.” An EPA chemist told the Kansas City Star that one library was told to throw away journals. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility uncovered documents ordering one library to recycle materials—”as many as possible.” And the House and Senate letters referenced above also reference the destruction of documents.

Myth #3: Calls to Congress are more effective than calls to the EPA administrator.

The Facts: For now, it is more effective to call Administrator Johnson. Congress is already aware of this problem and has asked the EPA to cease and desist; the decision to stop the closing of libraries and the destruction of documents lies now with Administrator Johnson. Of course, if you wish to call your senators and members of Congress in addition to Administrator Johnson, you certainly should!

Written responses from the EPA

Some concerned scientists and citizens who are calling the EPA are receiving a written response in return along the lines of this message:

“The Agency’s Library budget has been cut by $2 million for [Fiscal Year 2007]. The general trend in recent years has been fewer people physically visiting the EPA libraries, and more use of desktop services. EPA’s goal is to achieve greater efficiencies by streamlining EPA’s physical library collections and moving toward a new model focused on providing electronic delivery of library services.

For the past 15 years, EPA has been digitizing Agency documents and providing those documents in an electronic format. EPA is continuing this process by digitizing all unique documents created by the Agency with priority being given to those documents housed in the libraries that are closing. These documents will be made available to the public free of charge via the National Environmental Publications Information System (NEPIS). NEPIS, which is an online database, currently contains close to 20,000 documents and can be access at: http://nepis.epa.gov

In addition, the general public will still have access to interlibrary loan services, to reference services and to the Online Library System (OLS), the catalog of all the holdings in EPA’s libraries at: http://www.epa.gov/natlibra”

The response shown above does not adequately address many fundamental problems with the EPA’s decision to close libraries and destroy documents. Since the EPA is closing libraries before making materials available online, they must have a comprehensive plan that assures that valuable information is not destroyed or sequestered away indefinitely.

1. Why did EPA proceed so rapidly to shut the libraries, without having digitized all material first? Why is the EPA disposing of journals in dumpters? Who is deciding which journals go and which stay?

2. Why did EPA begin to shut down libraries before its Fiscal Year 2007 budget is approved by Congress and before Congress completes an investigation into the library system?

3. Why has EPA Administrator Johnson failed to respond to letters from leaders in Congress regarding this matter?

4. Has the EPA catalogued all of the documents that have been shipped from closed libraries to repositories? Are these items fully accessible? How long does the average inter-library loan request take to retrieve an item from the repository? Will the increased number of documents in repository increase this time?

5. According to a letter from the EPA employees union, some library contents “are being dispersed without establishing any standard procedures or criteria to ensure that important documents are not lost.” What standards are in place to ensure that records slated for storage and scanning are properly reviewed? In particular, who makes the determination of what is a “unique” document, how is this determination made, and what is the timeline for making these decisions?

6. In total, the EPA collections include 504,000 books and reports, 3,500 journals, 25,000 maps and 3.5 million information objects on microfilm. While purportedly almost 20,000 EPA documents are already available online, this represents less than 0.5% of the holdings in the EPA collections. 99.5% of EPA holdings are not yet digitized. Digitizing information and making it available online is extremely costly and labor intensive. What additional resources—in terms of both funding and staff time—have been committed to digitizing documents?

7. In particular, documents from before 1990 do not appear to have been digitized, and it is not clear from the 2007 EPA Library Plan that these documents will be digitized. How long will these holdings be inaccessible? What plans exist for digitizing records generated before 1990?

8. According to the EPA, the EPA library collections contain both EPA-generated documents and tens of thousands of documents generated by EPA contractors. What timeline exists for digitization of contractor and other non-EPA generated documents?

9. Public access to printed and microfilm records is critical for scholars. What public access, in addition to the online access for the almost 20,000 EPA generated documents, will be available to the records? Will members of the public be able to examine the microfilm records and printed documents from contractors, as well as EPA-generated reports?

10. How will the EPA address access to documents that may be less useful for current scientific work but are critical for historical work?

11. Documents put on EPA websites must be fully accessible to people with disabilities. Therefore, anything other than text (for example, a graph) must be accompanied by explanatory text which is then read by the software that makes the document accessible. Scanned documents may not meet these requirements. How will the EPA digitize documents while meeting this requirement?

12. How will the public know about and/or gain access to the documents that are not currently online, and may not be available for two years or more?

13. What is the value of the staff time that will be taken to comply with public requests, EPA interlibrary loan requests and information requests about what is available and how to gain access to it? Is this the most cost-effective system? Given that the budget has been cut by $2 million and digitization creates a significant amount of work, is it realistic to assume that the modernization plan will proceed quickly?

For more information, see the American Library Association and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Special Libraries Association CEO Janice R. Lachance may have put it best: “With this proposal, EPA’s leadership is making it more difficult for the agency’s policymakers and the public to leverage the extensive knowledge found in high quality, accurate information to make important decisions on our nation’s environment, potentially compromising the public’s health.”

Please call Administrator Johnson’s office today to ask him to immediately halt the closure of libraries and the destruction of documents.

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