Searching for the right engine

When Emma McNamara was studying library science in graduate school almost 15 years ago, she was given an assignment to imagine the library of the 21st century. She envisioned sensors that could read patrons' thoughts and retrieve the information they wanted.

Now acting director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Enterprise Information Management Division, McNamara reflects that the idea was "far-fetched'' and "against my nature as a talker.'' But her longing for the perfect search engine—one that can search any file format with natural language queries—has yet to be satisfied.

Before taking on her latest assignment nine months ago, McNamara ran the EPA's World Wide Web team. Under her leadership, the agency's Web site evolved from what she and her colleagues once called "a science experiment'' to a key tool for keeping tabs on pollution.

McNamara was chosen to head the Information Access Team because she was a librarian. Richard Martin, her former boss, who now runs the EPA's Enterprise Technology Services Division, said he wanted someone who understood how people locate information as opposed to someone focused primarily on technology.

"My view from the outset was that this [Web site] is a mouthpiece of the agency,'' Martin said. "You don't assign mouthpieces to computer specialists. You think about the organization of the information, not the bandwidth.''

McNamara's "librarian bias"—the idea that information should be arranged so that it is easy to find—defines her approach to technology. For the Web, EPA program offices provide the content, and McNamara's charge was to create "navigational paths'' that lead visitors from the agency home page to the right information. The agency spends less than $1 million annually to design and maintain three levels of navigational pages and its intranet.

Now McNamara oversees not only the Web site but records management, the EPA's Envirofacts data warehouse and an agencywide effort to develop common data standards for the information it collects. Her new responsibilities have "stressed for me that [IT] is becoming a very important part of the agency," she said.

She noted that users used to view IT shops as the "nuts and bolts" organizations they called on to ensure that their hardware was working. But now, IT is recognized as the glue that keeps the agency together, she said.

Using computers to find information comes naturally to McNamara, who has taken many courses during her career to keep pace with the latest search tools. "I love the technology and playing around with it,'' she said. Although she emphatically states she is "not a techie,'' she said that understanding the latest technologies is crucial to knowing what is possible to deliver to customers.

The EPA is undergoing a reorganization of its IT operations, and whether McNamara will remain division director or return to managing the Web site full time will depend on the outcome of that initiative. She may even decide she wants to do something else entirely. Hers has not been a traditional IT career path.

Born in Cuba, she got her first library job at a pharmaceutical company in Indiana after fleeing to the United States in 1961 as a refugee from Fidel Castro. A few years later, she married Thomas McNamara, the now-retired assistant secretary of State for political/military affairs. During her husband's stint with State, she changed jobs often as they moved from post to post. Among other positions, she ran the EPA's library briefly in the mid-1980s. When McNamara returned to the United States from her last overseas post in 1992, the EPA hired her to manage its portion of an international program for disseminating environmental data.

McNamara said she has never been one to plan ahead, but it appears that she does hope to continue on her current career path for at least a while longer. "With this reorganization, there might be a whole new set of challenges," she said. "I'm not ready to step back because it's not finished.''

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