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Libraries as a Community Resource for Environmental Information



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Discussion Summary: September 21, 2000

Further responses to Steve Curwood's Questions from Sept. 20 [for librarians, library patrons and workers in federal and state environmental protection agencies]

Panelists and EPA staff:

  • Local librarians are asked a variety of environmental questions, but this occurs less frequently with the availability of databases and the Internet. Libraries could offer "real time reference" to users of their homepages and databases. Patrons could click on "talk to a librarian" and be linked in real time to a librarian for help. Software for this is being developed, and EPA should consider adopting it. [Fox]
  • EPA has conducted a national phone survey to see what sources of environmental information the public wants, it has not been released. EPA says that the response rate to the survey was too low to extrapolate its results broadly, but that copies were available. [Conrad]
  • The net should not be your sole source of information; librarians can play an important role. [Conrad]
  • A new HUD site, http://www.hud.gov/emaps, allows users to look at local environmental hazards. [Bonner]


  • Recommended online resources include sites maintained by non-profit environmental groups such as EDF's Scorecard (http://www.scorecard.org) and OMB Watch's RTK NET (http://www.rtk.net).
  • While EPA produces good quality information, reliance on a single source is not a good idea. EPA could compensate for this by providing links to industry, ngo and academic materials.
  • EPA should leave no one behind in providing high quality information. Sometimes we rely too much on data and science and don't think enough about how to supply information that speaks to our humanity and our place in existence.
  • EPA libraries make documents publications available to the public by cataloging them, making them searchable via an Online Library System (OLS), and loaning them out to other libraries. Public librarians can get assistance from their regional EPA library.
  • The EPA Office of Water Resource Center has a useful automatic e-mail distribution list. (mailto:center.water-resource@epa.gov)
  • Most community members don't go to the library to obtain environmental information. They may lack computer literacy.
  • Pros and cons of using the Adobe PDF format were presented, including an argument in favor of this format for archiving historical documents.
  • Catalogs could contain links and be monitored by sniffers that that hunt down dead links. An alternative approach is to create bibliographic Web sites that lead to books or topical sites.
  • Performance-partnership grants with local libraries could help bridge a lot of gaps.

Steve Curwood asked three new questions this morning. First, he asked how should libraries integrate their written and Internet resources so that people

can find accurate information easily? Next he asked us to discuss why some of the participants had a skeptical tone abut EPA. Finally he asked if EPA generally a source of accurate, timely and accessible information, or do its inadequacies in some areas turn its data into Internet clutter?

Panelists Responses:

  • Political factors do not influence dealings with EPA libraries. Real-time, interactive, distance learning modules will be commonplace within 5 years. [Stoss]
  • EPA should organize information by designing routine data collections for electronic data management. Paper collections should also be put online. The federal government should catalogue standard information products according to a common reference system and understand the importance of archiving. The distribution of computer work stations to low-income areas is needed to address the Digital Divide. [Orum]
  • The agency generally does a good job in presenting and providing information, given that it is subject to conflicting political pressures. [Fox]

Participants Responses:

  • An academic librarian cautioned that even with unbiased sources we must ask where did they get their information.
  • A librarian at the University at Buffalo points out that a local Love Canal group donated an invaluable "grey" collection of materials to the University and that other local groups should follow this example.
  • Another librarian suggests that EPA should post materials on state listserves.
  • Since 1997 the University at Buffalo has been providing government document and pamphlets on line. The site is useful as a source of general information on popular topics and the Government Printing Office is looking at it as a possible model.
  • One participant who works with the Agency frequently says she trusts 70% of the staff to do the right thing but the rest are either punching their ticket for a job in private industry or coasting. She also points out that EPA suffers from many conflicting statutory mandates when it comes to releasing information. Funding is also a problem. This participant was also skeptical that the agency would routinely release draft documents on the Web, especially given that private research services provide these materials to the business community.
  • Two participants were also cynical about the political pressures that EPA is routinely subject to from industry and OMB. They pointed out that industry lobbyists far outnumber environmentalists at Agency meetings and that constant industry pressure can water down good programs like the TRI.
  • A researcher for local government strongly protested EPA's change in policy on AIRSData. This material used to be posted on the net but now the agency makes the public submit FOIA requests for hourly exceedances and violations of the national ambient air quality standards. She thinks this is going the wrong way.

Questions from Participants:

  • How can those librarians who work in Special Collections find repositories that hold special collections related to environmental topics, including the private papers of a prominent person, organization or even government departments?
  • An ELI representative asked how EPA and the states could better disseminate information to communities about upcoming regulatory decisions that will affect them? Should there be notices in libraries or mailings to neighbors?

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

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