Saturday, November 04, 2006

EPA official tries to allay library fears

by Aliya Sternstein

Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock is promising that EPA library material will be available digitally in the near future. His announcement comes amid concerns that library documents will become inaccessible as the agency shuts down many physical library facilities.

On Oct. 21, Peacock posted a message on YubaNet, an online community Web site for California’s Gold Country and Northern Sierra Nevada, stating, “All unique EPA material from all the recently closed physical libraries will be digitized in the next several weeks,” by January 2007.

He added that the EPA expects digitization of all materials to take two to three years, but information will not be restricted to the public during the transition.

Peacock posted the note in response to specific worries raised by an anonymous EPA employee, according to Peacock's YubaNet entry. Other employees had expressed concerns about whether information would continue to be made available as physical libraries are converted into virtual ones, his message states.

The unidentified employee had asked how long it would take to digitize the materials and whether the fiscal 2007 budget allocates funding for the digitization.

In September, House Democratic leaders asked the Government Accountability Office to review the EPA’s plan to close some of its libraries as it converts a network of physical libraries to a digital system. GAO officials granted the lawmakers’ request. The lawmakers were also worried that thousands of documents might become inaccessible during the switch.

Peacock wrote that, to the contrary, the “EPA's materials are becoming more accessible to the public.”

He notes that all the unique EPA documents from Region 5's physical library have already been digitized and placed on the agency’s Web site, “so more people now have better access to that material than ever before...which is the whole idea.”

The Region 5 Library in Chicago serves Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and 35 tribes.

The EPA has money to cover the costs of digitization, Peacock wrote. The funding is in the Office of Environmental Information's budget. However, the program is not a separate appropriations line item, he wrote, adding that not many such activities are.

The unnamed employee had said that materials are being locked away, where they are not available to anyone, Peacock wrote.

“I have been repeatedly assured that is not the case, and I have asked anyone to inform me, anonymously or otherwise, of any instance where they are unable to obtain a document they need that was previously available,” he wrote. “And I am not aware of a single instance where that is happened, but I am all ears.”

The Bush administration’s plan, which is part of the president’s fiscal 2007 budget recommendations, proposes to save $2 million by cutting more than 30 percent of the EPA libraries’ funds. The plan would shut down three regional EPA libraries and the headquarters library. It would cut the hours of operation at other EPA libraries, according to agency officials. The four facilities closed Oct. 1.

The nationwide EPA Library Network consists of 28 libraries. The EPA’s scientists, regulators and attorneys use the collections and services to gather information they need to conduct environmental assessments, develop regulations and enforce laws.

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