Cost-cutting moves at the EPA and elsewhere deny researchers and thepublic access to vital data, critics say.Closure of 6 federal libraries angers scientistsBy Tim Reiterman, Times Staff WriterDecember 8, 2006The NASA library in Greenbelt, Md., was part of John C. Mather's dailyroutine for years leading up to the astrophysicist's sharing of the 2006Nobel Prize for shedding new light on the big bang theory of creation.He researched existing space hardware and instrumentation there whiledesigning a satellite that collected data for his prize-winningdiscovery.So when he learned that federal officials were planning to close thelibrary, Mather was stunned.7;ptype=s;slug=la-na-libraries8dec08;rg=ur;ref=latimescom;pos=1;sz=300x250;tile=4;ord=45978259>"It is completely absurd," he said. "The library is a national treasure.It is probably the single strongest library for space science andengineering in the universe."Mather is one of thousands of people who critics say could lose accessto research materials as the government closes and downsizes librariesthat house collections vital to scientific investigation and theenforcement of environmental laws.Across the country, half a dozen federal libraries are closed orclosing. Others have reduced staffing, hours of operation, public accessor subscriptions.In Washington, books are boxed at an Environmental Protection Agencylibrary that helped toxicologists assess health effects of pesticidesand chemicals. The General Services Administration headquarters librarywhere patrons conducted research on real estate, telecommunications andgovernment finance was shuttered this year, as was the Department ofEnergy headquarters library that collected literature for governmentscientists and contractors.Officials say the cutbacks have been driven by tight budgets, decliningpatronage and rising demand for online services. And they say leaneroperations will improve efficiency while maintaining essentialfunctions. "We are trying to improve access and ... do more with alittle less money," said Linda Travers, acting assistant administratorfor the EPA's office of environmental information.Although hundreds of federal libraries remain open, critics say thedownsizing, especially at the EPA, demonstrates the Bushadministration's indifference to transparent government and toscientific solutions to many pressing problems."Crucial information generated with taxpayer dollars is now notavailable to the public and the scientists who need it," said EmilySheketoff, head of the American Library Assn.'s Washington office. "Thisis the beginning of the elimination of all these government libraries. Ithink you have an administration that does not have a commitment toaccess to information."Opponents of the EPA's reductions say they are likely to slow the workof regulators and scientists who depend on librarians and referencematerials that are not online.They fear that some publications will never be digitized because ofcopyright restrictions or cost. They worry that important material willbe dispersed, discarded or lost. And they contend that many people willlose access to collections because they cannot navigate online services.In addition to shutting its headquarters library and a chemical libraryin the nation's capital, the EPA has closed regional libraries inChicago, Kansas City and Dallas that have helped federal investigatorstrack sources of fish kills and identify companies responsible forpollution.The plans prompted the EPA's own compliance office to express concernthat cuts could weaken efforts to enforce environmental laws. EPAemployee unions decried the severity of a proposed $2.5-million cut in alibrary budget that was $7 million last fiscal year. And, at the requestof three House committees, the Government Accountability Office now isexamining the reductions."Congress should not allow EPA to gut its library system, which plays acritical role in supporting the agency's mission to protect theenvironment and public health," 18 U.S. senators, nearly all Democrats,said last month in a letter seeking restoration of library servicesuntil the issue can be reviewed.The EPA said the president's proposed budget had accelerated efforts tomodernize the system, and they said that library visits were declining."I think we are living in a world of digitized information," saidTravers of the EPA. "In the end there will be better access."Travers said all EPA-generated documents from the closed libraries wouldbe online by January and the rest of the agency's 51,000 reports wouldbe digitized within two years. The EPA, she said, would not digitizebooks, scientific journals and non-EPA studies but would keep one copyof each available for inter-library loans.The Library of Congress has digitized more than 11 million items in itscollection of 132 million, and it retains the originals. But DeannaMarcum, associate librarian for library services there, said maintaininglibrary space with staff provides important benefits, especially atspecialized libraries."The librarians are so accustomed to doing searches and know the sourcesso well, and it would be difficult for scientists to have the same levelof comfort," she said. "So, will they take the information they get anduse it rather than being exhaustive in their searches?"An EPA study in 2004 concluded that the libraries saved millions ofdollars a year by performing time-consuming research for agency staffmembers. The general public also uses EPA's libraries.When a sanitary district proposed a sludge incinerator along LakeMichigan in Waukegan, Ill., a few years ago, activist Verena Owen wentto the EPA library in Chicago, and with help from a librarian researchedhow much mercury comes from incinerators and its toxicity. Owen said herfindings 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 whodeveloped drinking water standards and studied the effects ofpesticides. "It allowed scientists to check on what they were being toldby companies registering new chemicals," said Linda Miller Poore, alongtime contract librarian there.In May, after learning the library would close, Poore took a job atNASA's Goddard Space Flight Center library in Greenbelt, Md., a facilitythat supports space exploration and global warming research.But Poore said she was notified recently that the Goddard library wouldbe closed Jan. 1, leaving its collection available only online. She saidshe was fired Nov. 17 after telling patrons about the plans. The companythat employed her declined to comment.Mather, the Nobel-winning astrophysicist, said the library's papercollection is indispensable. "If we ended up moving into an age wherepaper did not exist, we would need the equivalent to reach all the textsand handbooks, and until the great library is digitized, I think we needthe paper," he said.In the wake of complaints from scientists and engineers, the center'soperations director, Tom Paprocki, said the library was being fundedthrough March and that officials were exploring whether to preserve partof it.The discovery of discarded scientific journals last year in a dumpsterat NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley prompted a uniongrievance.Plans to slash library space later were scaled back, said unionpresident and scientist Paul K. Davis. "If not for our efforts, aboutthree-quarters of the library materials would have been gone," he said.At the Energy Department's headquarters, people researched radiationexposure 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 anonline service. "By taking our headquarters library and making itvirtual, more people can access it than just being in Washington," saidEnergy Department spokeswoman Megan Barnett, adding that thedepartment's labs often have their own libraries.
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