August 15, 2008

Data Lost in Rush to Close Libraries

By Swartz, Nikki

Facing massive budget cuts, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2006 decided to close some of its physical research libraries and make the data available online instead. However, in its haste to do so, the EPA may have lost some files, according to government auditors. Testifying before the House Science and Technology Committee's Investigations and Oversight Committee, Government Accountability Office (GAO) auditors said the EPAs push to digitize its libraries led to hasty closings, which lawmakers criticized.

"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 EPAs 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," she said.

However, the GAO disagreed and argued that poor planning has caused confusion about the location of some files.

"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," said John Stephenson, director of natural resources and environment at the GAO.

Stephenson said OEI budget cuts were partly to blame for the possible losses. But he pointed out that, faced with a $2 million proposed budget cut in 2007, the agency chose to reduce the library network's funding by 77 percent compared with fiscal 2006 funding. said 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 complete.

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

"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," he said. "They just sort of charged ahead with closures. As a result, there definitely seems to have been a loss of materials and services."

Copyright ARMA International Jul/Aug 2008

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