It looked a few years ago like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would close the Region 5 Library in Chicago, along with many other libraries in the EPA National Library Network. For EPA librarians, it began with the realization their facilities were slowly being starved of funds.
In the EPA Library Network Workgroup Report dated November 22, 2005, the authors noted, “The EPA Library Network is at a critical crossroad. Although the demand for library services remains high, EPA’s libraries have been receiving less funding every year for the past four or five years. There is no specific line-item budget for EPA libraries. However, the Agency’s budget, especially in the Administrative Support area, has consistently experienced reductions.”
They warned, “In FY 2007, the funding reductions may be much deeper than experienced in the past few years because EPA’s draft FY 2007 budget that was sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) contains a $500,000 budget reduction for the EPA Headquarters Library and for Library Network coordination projects. Both of these are managed by the Office of Environmental Information.”
In addition to that half-million dollar budget reduction, “The Office of Environmental Information…proposed a $1.5 million reduction in the regional support budget for EPA’s ten Regions. This budget reduction specifically targeted EPA’s Regional libraries, although each Region has discretion in how they choose to spend their Regional support monies. However, as of FY 2006, the regional support budgets have been restructured such that the Regions do not have as much flexibility to move monies as they once had. For this reason, the ten EPA Regions may have limited options as to how they can absorb their share of the $1.5 million reduction. They may simply have to reduce the funding for their libraries.”
At the time, the EPA operated a network of twenty-seven libraries out of its headquarters in Washington, D.C. and ten regional offices across the U.S. The libraries handled more than 134,000 research requests from its own staff; housed and cataloged an estimated 50,000 unique documents that were unavailable anywhere else; and operated public reading rooms and provided the public with access to EPA databases.
The EPA’s own scientists and enforcement staff were the principal library users. The scientists used the libraries to perform research to answer questions on such matters as the safety of various chemicals and the environmental effects of new technologies, while the EPA enforcement staff used the libraries to obtain technical information in support of pollution prosecutions and to track the business histories of regulated industries.
On February 10, 2006, the District of Columbia-based group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) announced, “Under President [George W.] Bush’s proposed budget, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is slated to shut down its network of libraries that serve its own scientists as well as the public, according to internal agency documents… In addition to the libraries, the agency will pull the plug on its electronic catalog which tracks tens of thousands of unique documents and research studies that are available nowhere else.”
According to the PEER press release, “Under Bush’s plan, $2 million of a total agency library budget of $2.5 million will be lost, including the entire $500,000 budget for the EPA Headquarters library and its electronic catalog that makes it possible to search for documents through the entire EPA library network. These reductions are just a small portion of the $300 million in cuts the administration has proposed for EPA operations.”
This came at a time when President Bush was “proposing to significantly increase EPA research funding for topics such as nanotechnology, air pollution and drinking water system security as part of his ‘American Competitive Initiative.’”
“How are EPA scientists supposed to engage in cutting edge research when they cannot find what the agency has already done?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who noted that EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson was moving to implement the proposed cuts as soon as possible. “The President’s plan will not make us more competitive if we have to spend half our time re-inventing the wheel.” Ruch added that “closing the Environmental Protection Agency libraries actually threatens to subtract from the sum total of human knowledge.”
On March 16, 2006, PEER announced the EPA “is closing its Midwest Regional Library serving universities, the public and its own staff in a six-state area, according to an internal email released today…The agency is acting without waiting for Congress to approve the proposed budget cuts that are the basis for dismantling EPA’s entire library network.”
In a memo e-mailed to all Region 5 EPA employees at 4:41 p.m. on March 13, 2006, EPA Midwestern Regional Administrator Thomas Skinner wrote that “the library will close in the near future” so as “to allow time for an orderly relocation of our library collection.” The affected library located in the Chicago regional headquarters served the six-state region of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Skinner wrote, “The Agency’s proposed budget for FY 2007 calls for a $2 million reduction to EPA’s library budget. This will result in a $150,000 reduction (approximately 90 percent) in funding for Region 5 library services, which will require closure of the Region 5 library.”
He hoped to continue supporting the staff with computer database access and interlibrary loans. “We will continue to provide staff with access to the library services they need to carry out the Agency’s mission-critical functions. We have compiled significant information regarding how our library is presently being used. The highest priority uses have been the online library system, interlibrary loans and reference services. Region 5 employees will continue to have online access to key journals and publications through the EPA Desktop Library(link)and we expect we will have access to interlibrary loans and reference services through another EPA library. In addition, the Online Library System (link) (OLS), the catalog of all the holdings in EPA’s libraries, will continue to be available to staff and the public.”
“By putting its research collections into indefinite storage, EPA might as well start burning books because these works are not likely to see the light of day again,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the agency has allocated no money for moving collections to other libraries or digitizing the holdings so that they would be available online. “The loss of access to this research will remove potentially key information from the hands of researchers, inspectors and decision-makers.”
PEER stated, “The plan to slash library funding is among the $300 million in EPA budget cuts proposed by the Bush administration. As originally proposed, the plan would also have de-funded the electronic catalog maintained by the EPA Headquarters library. When it was pointed out that eliminating the electronic catalog would make it impossible to find any holding within the network, EPA announced last week that it would restore the $500,000 reduction to its headquarters for the catalog. Unfortunately, EPA indicated that it would compensate for this action by spreading even deeper cuts cut among the other libraries.”
“EPA might want to wait for Congress to act before its shutters its libraries,” Ruch added, noting that EPA spends more than a half-billion dollars a year on research and the total library network budget is only $2.5 million. “EPA’s national research plan is supposed to build on what we already know; but effectively deploying our existing knowledge base will be increasingly difficult if decades of research are locked away in storage.”