Monday, December 11, 2006

disturbing news about closing of federal libraries

Cost-cutting moves at the EPA and elsewhere deny researchers and the
public access to vital data, critics say.

Closure of 6 federal libraries angers scientists

By Tim Reiterman, Times Staff Writer
December 8, 2006

The NASA library in Greenbelt, Md., was part of John C. Mather's daily
routine for years leading up to the astrophysicist's sharing of the 2006
Nobel Prize for shedding new light on the big bang theory of creation.
He researched existing space hardware and instrumentation there while
designing a satellite that collected data for his prize-winning

So when he learned that federal officials were planning to close the
library, Mather was stunned.


"It is completely absurd," he said. "The library is a national treasure.
It is probably the single strongest library for space science and
engineering in the universe."

Mather is one of thousands of people who critics say could lose access
to research materials as the government closes and downsizes libraries
that house collections vital to scientific investigation and the
enforcement of environmental laws.

Across the country, half a dozen federal libraries are closed or
closing. Others have reduced staffing, hours of operation, public access
or subscriptions.

In Washington, books are boxed at an Environmental Protection Agency
library that helped toxicologists assess health effects of pesticides
and chemicals. The General Services Administration headquarters library
where patrons conducted research on real estate, telecommunications and
government finance was shuttered this year, as was the Department of
Energy headquarters library that collected literature for government
scientists and contractors.

Officials say the cutbacks have been driven by tight budgets, declining
patronage and rising demand for online services. And they say leaner
operations will improve efficiency while maintaining essential
functions. "We are trying to improve access and ... do more with a
little less money," said Linda Travers, acting assistant administrator
for the EPA's office of environmental information.

Although hundreds of federal libraries remain open, critics say the
downsizing, especially at the EPA, demonstrates the Bush
administration's indifference to transparent government and to
scientific solutions to many pressing problems.

"Crucial information generated with taxpayer dollars is now not
available to the public and the scientists who need it," said Emily
Sheketoff, head of the American Library Assn.'s Washington office. "This
is the beginning of the elimination of all these government libraries. I
think you have an administration that does not have a commitment to
access to information."

Opponents of the EPA's reductions say they are likely to slow the work
of regulators and scientists who depend on librarians and reference
materials that are not online.

They fear that some publications will never be digitized because of
copyright restrictions or cost. They worry that important material will
be dispersed, discarded or lost. And they contend that many people will
lose access to collections because they cannot navigate online services.

In addition to shutting its headquarters library and a chemical library
in the nation's capital, the EPA has closed regional libraries in
Chicago, Kansas City and Dallas that have helped federal investigators
track sources of fish kills and identify companies responsible for

The plans prompted the EPA's own compliance office to express concern
that cuts could weaken efforts to enforce environmental laws. EPA
employee unions decried the severity of a proposed $2.5-million cut in a
library budget that was $7 million last fiscal year. And, at the request
of three House committees, the Government Accountability Office now is
examining the reductions.

"Congress should not allow EPA to gut its library system, which plays a
critical role in supporting the agency's mission to protect the
environment and public health," 18 U.S. senators, nearly all Democrats,
said last month in a letter seeking restoration of library services
until the issue can be reviewed.

The EPA said the president's proposed budget had accelerated efforts to
modernize the system, and they said that library visits were declining.

"I think we are living in a world of digitized information," said
Travers of the EPA. "In the end there will be better access."

Travers said all EPA-generated documents from the closed libraries would
be online by January and the rest of the agency's 51,000 reports would
be digitized within two years. The EPA, she said, would not digitize
books, scientific journals and non-EPA studies but would keep one copy
of each available for inter-library loans.

The Library of Congress has digitized more than 11 million items in its
collection of 132 million, and it retains the originals. But Deanna
Marcum, associate librarian for library services there, said maintaining
library space with staff provides important benefits, especially at
specialized libraries.

"The librarians are so accustomed to doing searches and know the sources
so well, and it would be difficult for scientists to have the same level
of comfort," she said. "So, will they take the information they get and
use it rather than being exhaustive in their searches?"

An EPA study in 2004 concluded that the libraries saved millions of
dollars a year by performing time-consuming research for agency staff
members. The general public also uses EPA's libraries.

When a sanitary district proposed a sludge incinerator along Lake
Michigan in Waukegan, Ill., a few years ago, activist Verena Owen went
to the EPA library in Chicago, and with help from a librarian researched
how much mercury comes from incinerators and its toxicity. Owen said her
findings helped a successful campaign to relocate the plant.

When she recently heard the library had gone dark, Owen was outraged:
"If I had known about it, I would have chained myself to the bookcase."

The EPA's chemical library in Washington assisted scientists who
developed drinking water standards and studied the effects of
pesticides. "It allowed scientists to check on what they were being told
by companies registering new chemicals," said Linda Miller Poore, a
longtime contract librarian there.

In May, after learning the library would close, Poore took a job at
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center library in Greenbelt, Md., a facility
that supports space exploration and global warming research.

But Poore said she was notified recently that the Goddard library would
be closed Jan. 1, leaving its collection available only online. She said
she was fired Nov. 17 after telling patrons about the plans. The company
that employed her declined to comment.

Mather, the Nobel-winning astrophysicist, said the library's paper
collection is indispensable. "If we ended up moving into an age where
paper did not exist, we would need the equivalent to reach all the texts
and handbooks, and until the great library is digitized, I think we need
the paper," he said.

In the wake of complaints from scientists and engineers, the center's
operations director, Tom Paprocki, said the library was being funded
through March and that officials were exploring whether to preserve part
of it.

The discovery of discarded scientific journals last year in a dumpster
at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley prompted a union

Plans to slash library space later were scaled back, said union
president and scientist Paul K. Davis. "If not for our efforts, about
three-quarters of the library materials would have been gone," he said.

At the Energy Department's headquarters, people researched radiation
exposure of family members who worked with atomic energy or weaponry.
And the library staff helped DOE employees and contractors.

This summer the library closed, except the law section, and became an
online service. "By taking our headquarters library and making it
virtual, more people can access it than just being in Washington," said
Energy Department spokeswoman Megan Barnett, adding that the
department's labs often have their own libraries.