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As EPA libraries go digital, public access suffers

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For a new Democratic Congress facing big environmental issues from global warming to dwindling fisheries, the first step may be keeping the nation's top environmental libraries from closing – and saving their myriad tomes from ending up as recycled cardboard.

To meet a proposed 2007 budget cut, the Environmental Protection Agency has in recent months shuttered regional branches in Chicago, Dallas, and Kansas City, Mo., serving 15 states, and has cut hours and restricted access to four other regional libraries, affecting 16 states. Two additional libraries in the EPA's Washington headquarters closed in October.

Until these closures, the EPA had 26 libraries, brimming with a trove of environmental science in 500,000 books, 25,000 maps, thousands of studies and decades of research – much of it irreplaceable, experts say.

EPA officials say the closures are part of a plan "to modernize and improve" services while trimming $2 million from its budget. Under the plan, "unique" library documents would be "digitized" as part of a shift to online retrieval.

But while electronic databases are easy to access, they could end up being more costly to use – and thousands of those "unique" paper documents may now sit for years in repositories waiting for the funding needed to "digitize" them, critics say. Meanwhile, the closings are proceeding so quickly that key materials are likely to be lost or inaccessible for a long time, EPA librarians say.

Current and former librarians recoiled over reports that scientific journals worth hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars were thrown in dumpsters in October.

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