EPA may have lost data in hasty library closures

The Environmental Protection Agency moved too quickly in closing some of its research libraries and may have lost some files as a result, government auditors recently testified before a House panel.

EPA’s push to digitize its libraries led to the rushed closings, said John Stephenson, director of natural resources and environment at the Government Accountability Office in testimony March 13 before the House Science and Technology Committee’s Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee.

Meanwhile, lawmakers criticized the closings.

“No library should be closed until its holdings have been effectively catalogued, evaluated and digitized,” said subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-N.C.).

Molly O’Neill, the EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Environmental Information (OEI) and chief information officer, testified that most of the information should currently be accessible and that any lost files most likely have redundant copies somewhere in the library network.

“Where we had journals and copies in other locations, they were tagged for recycling and offered up to other libraries.” O’Neill said.

However, GAO disagreed, saying poor planning left the location of the files unclear.

“We don’t know if they’ve thrown out materials. Ms. O’Neill doesn’t know if they threw out materials because EPA never made an inventory of the materials,” Stephenson said.

OEI budget cuts could be partly to blame for the possible losses, Stephenson said. But when faced with a proposed fiscal 2007 cut of $2 million, the agency chose to reduce the library network’s funding by 77 percent, compared with fiscal 2006 funding, Stephenson said.

Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy at OMB Watch, said EPA should have involved librarians in its digitization process from the outset.

Moulton said some of the decisions that would make sense from a manager’s point of view displeased librarians.

“I don’t think [EPA] ever had a good plan or had it vetted by the librarians and the employees on this network nor the public,” Moulton said. “They just sort of charged ahead with closures. As a result, there definitely seems to have been a loss of materials and services.”

The library’s digitization began months before O’Neill joined the agency. In December 2006, EPA placed a moratorium on further changes to the library system in the hopes that the digitization process would catch up. A month later, EPA extended the break indefinitely.

GAO wants that moratorium to continue until EPA releases a congressionally requested plan for what should be done next. O’Neill said that plan is nearly completed.

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