No plan yet to improve public access to information in EPA libraries

The Environmental Protection Agency is still working on a strategic plan to inventory its information and make it easily accessible to the public. -db

OMB Watch
November 9, 2010

After more than three years of development, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has yet to complete a strategic plan for its library network or to inventory the network’s holdings, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The Bush administration controversially moved to close several agency libraries, but opposition from Congress and the public pushed EPA to reverse course and reopen the libraries. However, the GAO report makes clear that additional steps are needed to ensure the library network’s valuable holdings are genuinely accessible to the public.

EPA issued a draft outline for a strategic plan in July 2007, and the plan was scheduled to be completed in 2008. However, the outline is missing several important pieces and is composed primarily of placeholders for future activities with no specific goals, timeframes, or methods listed.

In addition to the lack of a plan to guide the library network, GAO found that EPA does not yet have an inventory of its holdings. The agency also has no plan for prioritizing the digitization of its materials, a key component to improving public access to the agency’s library holdings. Without an inventory of holdings, EPA cannot prioritize what documents need to be digitized or know how much it will cost or how long it will take. Additionally, the agency has no criteria for scheduling funding for digitization or a timeline for the process. Without a completed strategic plan or a plan for funding the reorganization of the library network, the EPA’s ability to meet the network’s users’ needs is threatened, according to the GAO.

The EPA’s library network has for several years been the focus of controversy resulting from the Bush administration’s moves to close several libraries and the potential loss or destruction of library holdings. EPA reopened the libraries in 2008 following numerous protests by public interest groups, including OMB Watch, and the employees’ union, a critical government report, and congressional intervention.

An earlier GAO report found that the EPA’s process for closing the libraries was seriously flawed. The agency failed to follow its own plan for closing and reorganizing the libraries. The public was cut out of the process, with poor communications with library users and no plan for dispersal or disposal of holdings. EPA had also failed to fund the library closings and reorganizations.

In its response to the recent GAO report, the EPA agreed to complete its strategic plan in Fiscal Year 2011, although no detailed timeline was provided. EPA also agreed to create a schedule for cataloguing the inventory of library network holdings and to complete the cataloguing by Sept. 30, 2011.

The GAO report went on to highlight another significant flaw in the EPA’s information access policies. EPA often contracts with private entities to do many types of work, such as research and development. In addition, EPA provides financial assistance to states, local governments, schools, hospitals, and nonprofit organizations. Work produced under contract, as well as work produced under assistance agreements, may include copyrighted material. Although federal regulations generally allow for public disclosure of copyrighted materials produced under government contracts, EPA regulations do not allow public disclosure of copyrighted material produced under assistance agreements.

EPA has awarded more than 21,000 grants valued at more than $40 billion, according to the GAO report, producing a “substantial body of publicly funded written material,” and much of it may be copyrighted. EPA may only disseminate copyrighted materials to federal workers for official purposes and may not disclose them to the public.

GAO recommends EPA follow a practice similar to the Federal Library and Information Network, the business subsidiary of the Federal Library and Information Center Committee, which seeks permission to disclose copyrighted material under assistance agreements at the time an agreement is made. EPA currently does not have such a practice. The GAO makes clear, “without permission from copyright holders, however, documents prepared under EPA assistance agreements, using taxpayer dollars, will remain unavailable online to the public.”

The EPA, in responding to the GAO recommendations, agreed to identify ways of gaining permission from assistance recipients to disclose copyrighted material. However, the EPA feels restricted by legal constraints and will not digitize materials from ongoing assistance agreements.

Despite the missing strategic plan and inventory of holdings, EPA has taken important steps to improve the operations of the library network. The GAO report commends EPA for several actions taken to improve communications with agency staff on the operations of the library network, including regular teleconferences with library managers and staff and a live chat feature connecting staff to librarians. Numerous other positive steps are being taken to improve the usability of the agency’s online library system. The GAO report cites work that is underway to improve searchability of documents and navigation of the site.

EPA libraries contain a vast amount of information on environmental protection and management, basic and applied sciences, and local and regional environmental and public health issues. The network includes extensive coverage of issues pertaining to legislative mandates such as hazardous waste, drinking water, pollution prevention, pesticides, and other toxic substances. The information is used to evaluate environmental threats, assess new chemicals, inform policy decisions, and provide the essential data that agency and nongovernmental scientists need to challenge the scientific claims of polluting industries. Therefore, improving access to the network’s holdings is an important part of protecting public health and the environment.

As agency staff work to complete and implement the strategic plan, EPA may need to look beyond merely providing access to digital copies of its materials online. As one library advocate suggests, the agency should be able to provide library services to mobile phones and exploit social media like Facebook and Twitter in order to connect to users and potential users. The library network should also include topic-specific RSS feeds and other alert systems to push information out to the public.

The agency’s vision is to create “the premier environmental library network that provides timely access to information and library services to its employees and the public.” For a full recovery from the Bush-era assaults and to progress into a 21st century information network, EPA must implement the GAO’s recommendations and begin adopting the newest online technologies to ensure all users have access to this publicly funded information.

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