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EPA Library Closures Update:

Last fall I posted on the Environmental Protection Agency's plans to shutter its regional libraries. In the intervening months, it appears the EPA has moved forward with its plans, despite growing criticism and the concerns of the incoming Congressional leadership. Among those who have challenged the plans are library associations, EPA professional staff, and environmentalist groups. A group of environmental law professors (including yours truly) also sent a letter to the incoming Congressional leadership (including relevatn committee chairs) encouraging them to challenge the EPA's plans. The letter reads in part:

As you are undoubtedly aware, on September 20th, EPA published a Federal Register notice announcing that, as of October 1st, the main library at the Agency's Washington, D.C. headquarters would be shuttered to EPA's own staff, as well as to the general public, ostensibly for budgetary reasons. EPA libraries are already closed down in a number of the Agency's regional offices, as well as in its headquarters, and the hours of a number of its other regional libraries have been significantly curtailed. The vital technical documents that those libraries contained are now being dispersed. In some cases, reportedly, they are actually being destroyed.

When it made these steps public, the Administration stated that EPA's staff and the public may now access the information they require through EPA websites, rather than in hard copy. That contention is substantially false. Although the federal government has made significant strides in providing internet access to its documents, the vast majority of the documents in the closed EPA libraries are not digitized, and no funds have been allocated for that process to be completed. The likelihood that critical documents will now be damaged or lost is therefore very high. . . .

Ironically, the monetary savings that will result from these library shutdowns seem paltry, if not entirely illusory. . . . As a percentage of EPA's overall budget, any fiscal savings from the closures will be minuscule.

Moreover, EPA's libraries were also a valuable repository of environmental information for the general public with respect to such topics as historical trends in the contamination of local areas and techniques for the mitigation and control of pollution. . . .

Over the holidays, Rebecca Bratspies posted an update on Biolaw:

The Bush Administration has apparently began to feel the pressure. On December 11, 2006, EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock spoke for the first time about the library closures and defended the closures as a budgetary matter and again asserted that documents would be available online. However, virtually none of the EPA records that exist prior to 1990 have been digitized and there are no funds allocated for that process in EPA's 2007 budget. Peacock did indicate that EPA had "rescheduled the recycling" (read destruction) of documents in light of the congressional request. Much of the national press picked up the story at this point.

Nonetheless, as of now, E.P.A has closed its libraries in Dallas, Chicago and Kansas City. The Boston, New York, San Francisco and Seattle libraries are operating with reduced hours and public access. The central library in Washington, D.C., while nominally still open to E.P.A staff, has been closed to the public.

Apparently in an attempt to make the changes irreversable, an unknown number of documents have already been destroyed and the collections of the closed libraries dispersed. In one of the more bizarre turns, all the library furniture and fixtures from the Chicago library, said to be worth $80,000 were sold at auction for $350. The unseemly haste with which these critical libraries have been dismantled is startling.

Whatever one's view of current environmental regulations, or the EPA, closing libraries before all relevant materials are available on-line is a bad move. If motivated by budgetary concerns, it is penny-wise, but pound-foolish.

A. Zarkov (mail):
Now the EPA might very well have sinister motives for closing some of its libraries, but to me cutbacks of libraries and library hours seems like a long-term trend. The main branch of the New York Public Library used to be open seven days a week until late at night. Now it's closed on Sunday Monday and generally after 6:00 or 7:30 in the evening. The math library at UC Berkeley no longer has any weekend hours and closes early everyday. I once worked for a contractor laboratory that almost lost its whole main library to a budget cut. Throughout the years this valuable resource has continued to get downgraded in importance and funding. When I was an undergraduate our library was open everyday until about midnight with the sole exception of Christmas. It stayed open throughout vacation periods. It's rare to find that kind of availability in college libraries today. I never even thought about library hours, it was just always available like the plumbing. It just seems like modern institutional administrations don't put a very high priority on libraries.
1.4.2007 3:54pm
Ragerz (mail):
Query: Do these libraries have anything in them that make it easier to prove environmental law suits?

I know next to nothing about environmental law, but it sounds like things such as "historical trends in the contamination of local areas" might be very useful, and also very specialized and difficult to find elsewhere.

My real question is whether these apparently "miniscule" budgetary changes may be just a pretext for activities meant to make environmental protection more difficult, both for private parties and for the next (presumably) Democratic administration?

Alternatively, and less sinisterly, is this just another example of incompetence among top administrators in the Bush administration? Maybe there is something to the idea that anti-government ideologues perform poorly when they head government agencies who are skeptical of the missions and the very existence of the agencies they run.

Selling $80,000 worth of furniture for $350? Documents destroyed instead of donated? Library access diminished before the material is made available online? Some heads should roll. People should lose their jobs. I would start at the top.

Absent extreme incompetence, there is no real explanation for this other than anti-environmental animus. I guess this goes to show what happens when you put the fox in charge of the hen house.
1.4.2007 4:14pm
techster1 (mail):
Reminds me of this story from opinionjournal about how the Fairfax County libraries are stripping out books that haven't been taken out in 24 months- including the classics. It seems like libraries, and the materials in them, are a use it or lose it proposition.
1.4.2007 4:24pm
rmark (mail):
Local libraries intentionally weed out their collections over time, usually due to space considerations and public requests for more recently published materials. University research libraries tend to retain a copy of everything, for academic research. Alternatively, most books and periodical articles are available through Interlibrary Loan.
1.4.2007 5:30pm
Lev:
Yeah, our local library system took half the books off the shelf, and did what with them?

Have a major book sale?

Sell them to a book reseller?

Donate them to somebody?

Landfill?
1.5.2007 12:09am
davod (mail):
Markr:

YOu should not have to go to a research library to read one of the classics which is what is happening. Why have librarians. You just need a storekeeper to manage the inventory.
1.5.2007 8:54am
Jeek:
I don't understand why people are complaining that the libraries are being digitized (assuming that they actually are digitized, of course).

They fear that the agency's plan to save money by replacing printed resources with digitized versions on the Internet could make information less accessible.

Digitizing the information would make it a national - even a global - resource, rather than a regional one. Big expense up front to scan it all, but in time it pays off.
1.5.2007 10:05am
Colin (mail):
I don't understand why people are complaining that the libraries are being digitized (assuming that they actually are digitized, of course).

According to the excerpt above, they aren't. FTA: "Although the federal government has made significant strides in providing internet access to its documents, the vast majority of the documents in the closed EPA libraries are not digitized, and no funds have been allocated for that process to be completed. The likelihood that critical documents will now be damaged or lost is therefore very high. . . ."
1.5.2007 11:14am
Lev:

(assuming that they actually are digitized, of course)


Big assumption. The cost and time of digitizing documents is, in lawyerspeak, not insignificant.

The tendency is to pick up current materials in digital form and slowly work backwards in time.

When Lexis first came out, there were fairly severe restrictions on how far back in time you could search.
1.5.2007 11:08pm