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EPA Library Closures: Better Access for a Broader Audience?

Date: 
Thursday, March 13, 2008 - 12:00am
Location: 
Washington, DC

Opening Statement By Chairman Brad Miller (Investigations and Oversight)

Good morning and welcome to today’s hearing on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) management of its library system.

EPA has developed an absolutely unique library system.  It contains collections of documents that are very specialized and are used to inform scientific advice, regulatory proposals, and enforcement of environmental laws.  With 26 branches across the country, the network as it stood in early 2006, was an integrated whole with regions possessing collections appropriate to the issues in those regions as well as other journals and books.

By the end of 2006, that system stood in disarray.  In the interim, EPA headquarters had imposed an almost 80% budget cut on the regional library system – which resulted in closings of the Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City libraries – and had closed both the headquarters library and the chemistry library in Washington, D.C.  The materials of those libraries were boxed, stored, shipped, given away or simply thrown away.

Members of the public, EPA employees and Members of Congress were all concerned about the way the library closings unfolded.  Congress had no real warning that this was coming – and neither did employees or the public.  Our Full Committee Chairman, Mr. Gordon, was joined in a GAO request by Chairmen Dingell and Waxman as well as Senator Boxer.  GAO was tasked with examining the methods used by EPA for closing the libraries.  We will hear their testimony today, but their findings confirm that our concerns were well founded.

EPA managers had quietly begun studying how to consolidate and modernize their library system in 2003.  They gave it a lot of thought.  They developed a thoughtful plan to avoid hobbling the EPA’s work or the public’s access.  Then, when it came time to consolidate the system, those managers simply ignored all the careful planning they had engaged in and simply shuttered libraries.  They made no effort to reach out to staff to learn what they needed and how to serve them.  No effort to establish priorities in library holdings and digitize those holdings, before boxing them up, so that they would remain available to EPA and the public.  They made no effort even to do a cost-benefit analysis of various ways to reorganize the library system.  And when it came to decisions to close libraries, headquarters made no effort to provide guidance or assure integration across the system.  Headquarters simply announced a $2 million cut – leaving just $500,000 across the regional system – and left it to the regions to figure out what to do.  Perhaps the surprise isn’t that so many libraries closed, but that so many found the means to stay open – even if they reduced their hours and access.

The most generous interpretation is incompetence – that EPA managers grossly mismanaged their library system.  Despite all the careful thinking and planning, in the end, incompetence seems to have won the day.  Others may see a more sinister motive because it is undoubtedly the case that closing libraries and limiting access to important information reduces the ability of EPA employees to act to protect the environment or the public health.  I am not persuaded that was the motive behind these actions, but it is an unavoidable and predictable consequence of the moves by management in 2006.  They took a library system that was working, that they knew was important to EPA’s mission, and shook it up so that much of it is not working well and it may take years and a lot of money to set things right again.

So where do we go from here?  First, Congress directed in the 2008 Omnibus Appropriation that the regional libraries that have been closed should be reopened.  I congratulate Senator Boxer for her strong work to accomplish this.  I want to know what steps EPA has taken to follow that guidance.

Second, the agency should reopen its headquarters and chemical libraries.  These are central assets that serve the Washington, D.C. staff of EPA and the public and the loss of these libraries is a tragedy.

Third, EPA managers need to return to its studies of 2004 and 2005.  No library should be closed until its holdings have been effectively catalogued, evaluated and digitized.  No library should be closed with a promise of eventual internet or intranet access, until the search engines are proven to provide meaningful access.  No libraries should be closed until methods are established to guarantee librarian support for work, even if that work is done with virtual materials.

Finally, no efforts to restructure services should come without significant consultation and guidance from the staff of the agency, the concerned public or Congress.

We have an excellent panel of witnesses with us this morning.  I look forward to your testimony and your recommendations on how to rebuild and modernize the EPA library network.


Opening Statement By Chairman Bart Gordon

The Government Accountability Office’s report on EPA’s library network is a blueprint of how not to modernize and restructure a functioning organization.

When I requested this investigation with my colleagues back in September 2006, I suspected EPA was moving too quickly to close libraries.  I was skeptical that any cost savings would be achieved through this exercise, or that the Agency was taking proper care to ensure this unique library collection would remain intact and accessible.  I hoped I was wrong.

A library is more than a collection of books and documents.  It is an organized body of knowledge that we continue to build upon as we expand our understanding of the world we live in.  It is a public institution that promotes democracy by providing everyone the opportunity to access and utilize the accumulated knowledge of our society.

I believe libraries should move into the modern era of electronic communication just as all our other public and private institutions are doing.  If it is done right, the creation of a web-based virtual library would expand access to information to a much broader audience.  I fully support such a goal.  Unfortunately, the EPA library network is nowhere near that goal.

Simply stating and repeating the goal of "providing greater access for a broader audience" does not accomplish it.  Real work needed to be done by the Agency prior to emptying library shelves or closing any library doors.

GAO’s report documents the Agency’s failure to do any of the work necessary to ensure their stated goal for the modernization would be accomplished.  EPA executed a failed process for modernizing their library network.  The only goal they accomplished was to reduce the number of libraries in the EPA network.  This is not a goal that serves the public or the Agency’s mission.

The Agency appears to have avoided talking to any group with expertise or interest in their libraries.  The Agency did not consult experts inside or outside the government to determine best practices for establishing and maintaining an electronic library.  They also refused to meet with their own employees – an action that ultimately led to arbitration and a finding that the Agency violated its agreement with their unions.  EPA made no attempt to reach out to the public, and they virtually ignored Congress until they reluctantly agreed to a moratorium on further implementation of their flawed plan.

Until EPA has completed the work necessary to move to an electronic delivery of library services, the closed libraries should be reopened.  Documents should be retrieved and replaced and library services should be restored to the level they were prior to the initiation of this flawed plan.  The public and the EPA employees who serve them deserve no less.

Witnesses

Panel

1 - Mr. John Stephenson
Director Natural Resources and Environment Government Accountability Office Natural Resources and Environment Government Accountability Office
Download the Witness Testimony

2 - Mr. Charles Orzehoskie
President, Council 238 American Federation of Government Employees American Federation of Government Employees
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3 - Dr. Francesca Grifo
Senior Scientist and Director, Scientific Integrity Program Union of Concerned Scientists Union of Concerned Scientists
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4 - Mr. Jim Rettig
President-Elect American Library Association American Library Association
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5 - Ms. Molly O’Neill
Assistant Administrator Office of Environmental Information (OEI) and Chief Information Officer (CIO) Environmental Protection Agency Office of Environmental In
Download the Witness Testimony

Witness Panel
Witnesses testify before the Subcommittee on the EPA library system
L-R: Mr. Stephenson, Mr. Orzehoskie, Dr. Grifo, Mr. Rettig, Ms. O'Neill
For information on the witnesses, use the links at left
110th Congress