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Libraries as a Community Resource for Environmental Information



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Discussion Summary: September 19, 2000

Today Steve Curwood asked us to assess the information available on EPA's Web site in terms of quality, quantity, focus attitude of presentation, ease of use, accuracy, credibility and timeliness. We have added a section, "EPA Responses" that summarizes some of the agency's posts. We hope you will take the time tomorrow to respond to the issues that the Agency raises so that EPA can learn your views on these matters. We are also pleased that many of you are answering each other's requests for information.

What information do people need, and how well does the EPA supply it?

  • The public wants information on topics ranging from how to make sound environmental decisions in their personal lives to understanding issues as vast and as complicated as global warming.
  • People are interested in the compliance status of local companies.
  • Citizens need guides to help them navigate the EPA Web site.
  • The EPA Web site should have a searchable Health Effects section.
  • Unsophisticated users need search engines that can respond to "street" vocabulary.
  • The individual EPA office sites provide good introductions, but there could be more on EPA's organizational structure. (Who does what and who reports to whom?)
  • Timeliness is a problem. EPA gives the public only 30 days to comment on air permits that may have in its files for years.
  • Databases should be up-to-date, and Web site links should all be functional.
  • An indexed on-line catalog of federal regulations would be helpful.
  • The EPA's Online Library System, where all EPA libraries can be searched at once through http://www.epa.gov/natlibra/aboutols.htm received praise.
  • Text documents should be searchable, which is not possible with many Adobe Acrobat items on the EPA Web site.
  • The quality of EPA databases is uneven, but the problems of data collection may be more of a political nature than a library issue.
  • People like the newly redesigned topics page although it could perhaps use better navigational tools.
  • Participants praised EPA's materials on specific organophosphate pesticides under review but complained that there is no master list of registered pesticides and enforcement data.
  • Tools are needed to interpret water quality data and put local issues into perspective.
  • FOIA materials and major documents such as environmental impact statements should be placed online or cheaply sold on a CD.
  • Libraries could play a key role in providing Information to people on fire-adapted ecosystems and forest health.
  • EPA needs to establish more formal relationships with state libraries.
  • EPA should provide case studies on how effective citizens groups make a difference and what to do if the Agency's response is unsatisfactory.

Questions raised by our participants:

  • How do we assess the quality of information retrieved online?
  • How do we provide information to populations that are not technically proficient and do not want to be tutored in technology?
  • How should EPA overcome its program specifics in providing information?
  • How do we provide transportation planning information that is complete, understandable and visual?
  • What responsibility does a state or federal agency have in not only building databases but also in educating and training the public to access them?
  • How do we find more current data on the site when materials are often 2 years old?
  • What do we do when materials can no longer be downloaded?
  • Do numerical databases always help describe environmental problems? Ecological problems are generally poorly described by EPA's data, although the Surf Your Watershed tool off the main EPA site makes a good attempt at water quality issues. EPA's many mapping projects are useful for showing toxic release sources as dots on a map, but do they work for well for ecological problems such as critical habitat?
  • Velma Smith, one of our panelists, asks how local environmental groups can reach out to libraries and if libraries would be receptive to receiving publications from these environmental groups? How does a group target selected libraries, and are there associations of "environmental librarians" that could provide guidance? Fred Stoss, another of our panelists, provided several links to environmental materials maintained by libraries.

EPA Responses:

  • Pat Bonner asks the group to explain their suggestions on organizing information. Are we talking navigability on the Internet, and usability, or something else?
  • Pat Bonner asks what makes some communities successful early adopters of ideas. How do you replicate a success like David Gershon's group, Global Action Plan? How big can the "community" be? What types of communities should EPA's pilot library projects serve?
  • Pat Bonner also asks whether providing online "training" materials would be useful to think about? Can libraries and other community centers work to build awareness and move people to action?
  • Jonda Byrd asks us to assess how successful the vocabulary feature is on the Browse Topics page that provides a topical approach to the Web site:


Summary prepared by Barbara Brandon, bhb@info-ren.org

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