Chicago EPA Library to Close
by Raizel Liebler, Photo by Andrew Bruah

Imagine that you are a neighborhood environmental activist looking for a complete soil survey for information on whether the soil in your community is polluted. Or perhaps you are a graduate student who needs help with a literature search on nanotechnology or coal-mining residue. Or a scientist interested in using methane gas from landfills as an energy source. Where in the city can you go for this kind of information?

Soon, due to a federal budgetary decision, the region’s best local source of publicly-accessible environmental data and in-person assistance with answers to complex environmental research questions will be closing. Within the next month, the Region 5 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Library on the twelfth floor of the Metcalfe federal building will close its doors for the last time.

Until then the sole librarian, Karen Swanson, continues to take the time to help those attempting to find information among the dizzying maze of government information and acronyms. These users range from federal employees to the average citizen searching for information on environmental issues in their communities.

The Chicago EPA library covers the six-state region of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin and serves EPA employees as well as lawyers, environmental activists, real estate agents, and other members of the public. The EPA library materials and staff help EPA staff to “find the latest information on health risks associated with chemical substances, locate the latest information on new environmental technologies, prepare scientific documentation to justify EPA’s position on developing new regulations, and provide documentation for enforcement cases.”

The EPA library also gives members of the public access to information on environmental protection and management, biology and chemistry, engineering and toxicology, hazardous waste, drinking water, pollution prevention, and toxic substances, and government environmental laws and regulations.

According to Kevin McClure, Government Documents Librarian at IIT/Chicago-Kent College of Law, the closing of the Chicago and other EPA libraries could have a significant impact. “For local governments, academic researchers, or environmentalists, a lack of access to the information they need can have a direct impact on their ability to promote a healthful environment. Private interests might also need this information to decide where to build a new plant, or to select a waste treatment process, or to choose between competing new technologies. When that needed information becomes harder or impossible to find, the loss of government information ultimately strikes a blow at productivity in the economic life of the nation.”

The library is part of an extensive network of libraries scheduled to close in the coming months. The Region 5 library has an annual budget of under $100,000, excluding salaries. The EPA’s yearly expenses for its libraries, including the main branch at EPA headquarters, are approximately $2.5 million a year. However, the president’s fiscal year 2007 budget would close many of the 27 EPA libraries, including the headquarters library, six of the ten regional and several of the laboratory branches, including Chicago’s Region 5 library, leaving only $500,000 for all EPA libraries. This $2,000,000 savings is equivalent to a tiny percentage of the approximately $35 billion spent per year on the Iraq war and would pay for only approximately a half hour of current military action.

While the 7,000 research materials unique to the Chicago EPA library will be likely be shipped to another EPA library that will remain open, an important Chicago-based public resource will be gone. And while the Chicago-based employees are doing their best to continue to keep information available in the future, the ways in which EPA information will be available to EPA employees and the public are unknown. According to Patricia Krause, Library Manager, the EPA plans to on digitizing all EPA documents and putting them on the Internet, as an example of “responsible dispersal.”

According to the EPA Library Network Workgroup – a group consisting of 21 EPA staffers from national and regional offices –“the collection, especially those unique holdings, must remain accessible to both EPA and non-EPA users on an ongoing basis. In other words, it is not a viable option to simply lock the doors of a library, and leave the collection in the space where nobody has access to it.” However, when and if these unique materials will be available to the public again is unknown – after all, someone has to make the materials available – and the EPA library budget is not, apparently, a government priority.

According to McClure, the information created and collected by the EPA belongs to us all and limiting accessibility threatens government accountability. He says, “In a very important way, the American people really own this information. They paid for it, and it was produced in their name. To make the information public is a reflection of the ideal that government should be open and accountable, not only so that citizens can monitor what government is doing, but so that we can derive the full benefit of that work.”

In addition to the physical space of the library being closed, the reference desk at the Chicago EPA library will be closed, losing the expertise of the solo librarian. Though in the past seven years the library has gone from three librarians to one, questions from patrons have become more sophisticated and the complex questions often require specialized research skills and knowledge. According to John Shuler, Department Head and Documents Librarian for the Documents, Maps, and Microforms at the University of Illinois at Chicago “Perhaps what I mourn more than the loss of the collections is the loss of the library expertise.”

During fiscal year 2005, the Region 5 EPA library answered almost 1,750 simple and detailed research questions, searched databases or the shelves for specific items 8,900 times, borrowed or lent 950 items from/to other libraries, and had over 24,000 hits on its library Internet page. The librarian also trained 230 people to use EPA materials, including both EPA employees and the public--which is more people trained than in any other regional library. Shuler says, “At their best, government information librarians, especially in this age of digital information, serve to explain what the government is up to.” All of the EPA librarians, including Karen Swanson, the Region 5 librarian, make complex government information more accessible to the public. But their support to the public and EPA librarians is drawing to a close

There is one small glimmer of hope for the Chicago EPA library and other libraries on the chopping block. At a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Pending Nominations meeting, Senator James M. Jeffords (D-VT), stated that the EPA “libraries play an important role in informing the public, and their closure would be another example of this Administration’s disturbing trend of blocking access to public information.… From my perspective, it is critical that the head of EPA’s Office of Environmental Information be committed to preserving the public’s right-to-know about environmental conditions in their communities.”

In response to Senator Jeffords, Molly O'Neill, President Bush's appointee for EPA's Office of Environmental Information head, said that she believes in accessibility of government information, stating a commitment to “improving data quality and access to environmental information.” She continued, “It is my vision that scientists will make decisions based on historical and real time data. And, government agencies will have access to environmental data in daily processes as well as in times of national emergencies.” She added in person, according to a BNA news report that the EPA libraries give “people data they need and holds companies accountable for their actions … I will look at the issue to see if the average citizen and scientist will have the same rights and ability to access information.”

The information in the EPA libraries continues to be important; whether anyone will be able to access the information has yet to be decided. Shuler suggests that the public join librarians in actively supporting the idea that government information belongs to us all. Together the public and “librarians can use government information as a form ‘of social capital that supports active citizen participation, public problem solving and deliberative democratic dialogue.’”

What you can do:

1. Use government information and tell government officials that obscuring government information does not support democratic ideals.

2. Read Free Government Information: Because government information needs to be free to become more informed.

Raizel Liebler is a Chicago librarian and blogs about law, government information, and libraries at the LibraryLaw blog.

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