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RE: Greetings and Question for Today: What kind and what amount of information do people need ?

People want and need a vast array of accurate environmental
information.  They often also need related information on health
effects and health status in their communities.  However, while
many EPA forums have addressed improving databases and their
availability on the Web, often overlooked is how to ensure people
know what's there and how to use it.  I believe it crucial to
provide outreach and assistance in using this resource.  Along with
a handful of others, the nonprofit I work for (JSI Center for
Environmental Health Studies) has created several guidance materials
and conducted trainings for librarians, the public, and others,
but these efforts are just a drop in the bucket compared to the
need that exists.  Below supports my case:

Surveys of the general public have recorded strong concern about
the environment and hazard chemical pollution.  Many indicate,
however, that they are not aware of where to go for information to
address their concerns.  A  study by Georgetown University noted
that Libraries were the first resource of choice used by the public
to obtain information(as this 1989 study is somewhat dated, do
others know of any more recent assessments?).

Many resources are available to libraries to help address the
information needs of the public.  Important among these is the U.S.
EPA's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI).  The TRI can be a valuable
tool for residents to examine hazardous chemical releases (and
transfers) and industry efforts to prevent pollution in their
communities.  It is also the first government database mandated to
be so widely accessible to the public through online as well as
other, multiple media formats.

In 1995 I surveyed Massachusetts libraries on these issues (with
92 responding). They indicated that, despite its benefits and
availability, Massachusetts librarians were not fully aware of the
TRI and it's benefits.  Only 8 of the 92 librarians knew of the
TRI, of those only 3 had used it.  Many librarians were not aware
the TRI existed, or how to obtain it(The discussion thread "What
is TRI" during this conference points to little progress in widespread
public awareness of this resource).

In line with the few libraries indicating familiarity with TRI, 66
librarians (72%) cited lack of awareness that this resource existed
to be a major obstacle to its use.  Lack of patron requests (33%),
being unsure of how to obtain access to the TRI (26%), and not
being sure of ways the data may be useful to patrons (13%) were
also limiting factors.  Difficulty using the CD-ROM or online
software, or in understanding the data was rarely given as one of
the reasons for infrequent use (2%).

Library patrons also did not seem to be aware of TRI availability
or usefulness, with few requests being made for the data.  A "catch
22" exists where patrons, unaware of the TRI, do not request the
information.  Without patron interest, librarians have not had
reason to explore and promote this resource.  Most librarians,
however, indicated an interest in expanding their ability to serve
as local environmental information centers. Lack of space and
resources were obstacles for some.

For those who want a copy of the survey or the tutorial JSI created
as a tool: "Environment and Health: How to Investigate Environmental
Health Problems in Your Community" I will send (or email if there
are too many) it free.  It's a guide to using publicly available
information resources.  We've weeded them down to ones that we've
found most valuable to the communities (numbering over 600) that
have asked us for technical assistance in addressing local concerns.

Terry Greene
JSI Center for Environmental Health Studies

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