A group of senators has joined the fray over whether the Environmental Protection Agency should slow or stop a campaign to digitize materials in its technical libraries and close the facilities to agency researchers and the public.
On Friday, 17 Democratic senators and one Independent wrote to appropriators asking that EPA be directed, through the budget process, to maintain physical access to its libraries while the public is given an opportunity to comment on planned closures.
The agency in August published a plan to change how it delivers library services to its staff and the public, developed in anticipation of budget cuts. It entailed closing at least three regional libraries and eliminating physical access to the collections at its headquarters library. The materials will be digitized, "dispersed" to another facility or disposed of, depending on their nature.
The plan did not detail the future beyond fiscal 2007 for the remaining libraries, but a June memorandum from EPA Chief Financial Officer Lyons Gray, leaked to the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, suggested deeper cuts for fiscal 2008. On Monday, an EPA employee who asked to remain anonymous said it was "probably reasonable to assume" that libraries would be cut again.
That employee confirmed that the regional and headquarters libraries have been closed as planned, as have two laboratory libraries and one that serves agency staff working on toxics and pesticides programs.
EPA spokeswoman Suzanne Ackerman said all unique documents in the three regional offices already closed would be fully digitized by January 2007, and will be available online in common Internet formats like HTML and PDF. Full digitization will take two to three years, she said, and public access will not be restricted during that time.
The agency has portrayed the library closures and digitization as part of an effort to modernize its library system and make the materials more universally accessible. But the senators who questioned the cut cited a 2004 EPA report that found agency libraries more than paid for themselves, accounting for staff savings of $7.5 million in 2003.
Unions representing more than 10,000 agency employees also protested the cuts in a June letter to members of Congress. "Many of us rely heavily on our technical libraries to perform our jobs in an effective manner," the letter stated. Closures would impair EPA's ability to respond to emergencies because of delays in accessing documents from storage or remaining facilities, the union officials said.
"Our library staff provides us with the latest research on cutting-edge homeland security and public health issues," the officials wrote. They accused the administration of "suppress[ing] information on environmental and public health-related topics while cloaking these actions under the guise of 'fiscal responsibility.' "
In September, several House Democrats asked the Government Accountability Office to examine the library closures plan. A GAO spokesman confirmed that an investigation will be conducted, but could not say when the results would be available.
Ackerman, the agency spokeswoman, said funding for digitization is not an issue because the agency already has the scanning equipment, and the associated labor costs are minimal. But she did not elaborate on an element in the 2007 plan that said "other regions may put their collections into stasis, i.e., neither fully operational nor fully closed, until funding for dispersion is available."
The plan described separately how access to information would be provided for agency officials and members of the public under the closure plan. Where libraries have been closed, agency staff members are slated to have access to research librarians at other facilities. Members of the public will be directed to EPA's Web site or, if they contact public affairs offices, to agency-identified experts knowledgeable about given subjects.
The agency official said that level of public service is a significant shift from having access to a research librarian. "It's a very different thing, to give the public access to a phone number for an expert … rather than having a professional librarian assist you in tracking down obscure studies or journal articles that may provide you with a more in-depth discussion of those topics. It's not the same level of service."