EPA officials defend library closures, tout benefits of digitization

Internal documents urge officials to move slowly in disposal of library materials; furniture sale in Chicago netted just $350.

Environmental Protection Agency officials on Monday disputed charges of information suppression levied by some advocates and lawmakers, insisting that a hurried shutdown of several regional libraries is part of a larger plan to modernize the agency's library system and broaden access to resources.

"When libraries go digital, everyone benefits," said Marcus Peacock, the EPA's deputy administrator, during a brief teleconference. "By modernizing our libraries, EPA is bringing our cutting-edge science to your fingertips, whether you live across the street or on the other side of the world."

Linda Travers, acting administrator of the EPA's Office of Environmental Information, said the recent closures of several libraries were part of a plan in the works since 2003 and released in August. The agency has closed regional libraries in Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City, as well as the library at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and a specialized library on pesticides and toxic substances.

Lawmakers recently have described the closures as a pre-emptive response to cuts proposed in the president's fiscal 2007 budget request for the agency, though Congress has not approved that budget and is likely to pass a yearlong continuing resolution rather than the individual spending bills that remain. In the last several weeks, a group of House representatives has questioned the closures, and four Senate leaders with oversight of EPA instructed the agency to halt the destruction and dispersal of library materials pending further investigation.

But agency deputy spokeswoman Jessica Emond said Tuesday that the closures are not linked to budget issues and would not be halted if the agency saw a funding boost. She said the agency has "rescheduled" the disposal of library materials, but is continuing with digitization.

In defending the closures, Peacock and Travers cited the EPA's adherence to recommendations by the American Library Association.

But Leslie Burger, president of the ALA, said on Monday that the group was not consulted. "The call today raised more questions than answers," Burger said. "The [ALA] would be pleased to meet with EPA to discuss digitization plans for the EPA network of libraries. EPA has not contacted ALA at any point in this process."

An ALA official said the association does not have standard guidelines for library digitization.

Travers said "all documents produced by or for EPA" are being digitized, with digitization of unique documents from the facilities that are now closed to be completed by the end of January 2007.

But the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility published an Oct. 30 e-mail circulated internally that advocated for the digitization of contractor-produced documents. The message suggests that was not always taking place.

"The information in these reports can be very valuable," the message stated. "Often, the only reason these reports, particularly contractor-produced reports, were not printed with EPA covers and report numbers is that the project officer and/or sponsoring EPA office did not … follow the standard printing and distribution procedures."

In response to direct questions on the digitization of contractor-produced documents and EPA-funded research, Emond said digitization would proceed on a case-by-case basis. "Grants and partially funded research materials can only be digitized according to terms of the grant or funding mechanism," she said.

Guidance in the agency's August planning document urged officials to work carefully in making decisions about how to dispose of library materials.

"No two EPA libraries are the same," an appendix stated. "They differ in size, target audience, subject focus and depth of collection. Although it may be tempting to dispose of library materials quickly, the loss of important and unique materials could have serious future consequences if the agency cannot document scientific findings or enforcement actions."

But in Chicago, where an EPA library officially closed on Oct. 1, the agency already has sold the furniture. A General Services Administration auction listing described the contents of the single lot from the property. Included were "the book shelves, bookcases, desks, carts, chairs, tables, pictures, stands, stools, filing cabinets, clocks," and supplies down to staplers and pencil sharpeners, described as in good condition.

The selling price for the lot, according to an EPA facilities manager: $350.