MIke Flynn, Deputy Director of the Office of Information Analysis & Access at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was the invited guest at SLA’s Public Policy Update session. After Doug Newcomb summarized SLA’s stance on various public policy issues, such as orphan works, Grokster, copyright, fair use, net neutrality, broadcast flag, Congressional Research Service reports availability, and others, Janice Lachance described her activities representing SLA at World Information Society meetings. The next Forum will be held in Rio.
Then it was Flynn’s turn. The issues surrounding EPA libraries have been a "hot button" item for months: For background on the issue, see Barbie Keiser’s NewsBreak of February 12, 2007 (http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=19226). Flynn, who’s been with the agency since 1980, was remarkably upbeat. He said he was there to tell us what the EPA was doing and what they’re not doing. Everyone in the room applauded when he said, "The EPA libraries are alive and well — and we intend to keep them that way." HIs goal is to improve the library network and he admitted that much of the bad publicity was due to poor communications. He’s looking for ways to empower informatin to make it useful for users. There is, however, continuing pressure regarding resources, which is why some of the regional EPA libraries and the headquarters library were closed to walk-in traffic, while others cut back their hours. Technology enables the libaries to provide service even without a physical presence. The new EPA approach is not to diminish resources, but to change the delivery mode. He likened librarians to "high tech info sleuths" — humans can make connections that computers can’t. (I thought of that comment later during the visualization session I moderated, since the message there seemed to be that computers could make connections that humans can’t.)
Flynn made some promises to the group. There will be no more closures or cutbacks in hours (at least not without thorough review and, one presumes, better communication as to why this is happening if it happens in the future). The hiring of Debbie Balsamo, an SLA member and president of the North Carolina Chapter, shows the agency’s commitment to the profession. EPA has stopped its digitization project pending a third party review. EPA will schedule stakeholder meetings — July is the next scheduled one and it is being hosted by ALA. EPA will set up an advisory board. It intends to integrate more with other government agencies. EPA will update its Web presence.
Closing his remarks by stating that the EPA "is committed to providing access and improving library services," Flynn then took some tough questions from the audience. He clarified specific staff cuts and open hours for some of the regional libraries. One librarian wanted to know if she could still ask questions of EPA librarians to further her company’s goal of reducing emissions in their truck fleet. The answer was yes. Concerns about the digitization process and the contractor (Lockheed Martin) were voiced. Is sensitive but not classified information being removed from the Web site? Flynn said it wasn’t, but there had been technical glitches that resulted in information either being removed or not able to be found. That has been fixed. What about climate change? It’s a key strategy of the EPA, said Flynn, to put more documents relevant to the topic online. Will Google be able to find EPA archived documents or will they be protected by a robots.txt file? Flynn had no idea what a robots.txt file was and gamely admitted his ignorance. He did think Google could find EPA documents but knowledgeable libarians in the audience were sceptical. Is EPA a closed system? Are there opportunities to work with UN initiatives to open up EPA information to the world? Flynn’s answer wasn’t the epitome of clarity, although he opted for openess. At this point, Janice suggested he should also look at partnering with the private sector.
Later, in a private meeting later with Jill Hurst-Wall, Barbie Keiser, and several ITI bloggers and editors, Flynn attributed some of the communication problems to the structure of the EPA. "It’s not command and control," he said. From the sound of it, the EPA is one of the most decentralized libary systems I’ve heard about. A simple question that Flynn received a few months ago from a (mainstream media) reporter about hours at the individual regional libraries couldn’t be answered without contacting all the individual libraries. The reporter took this as stonewalling, I gather, although I would chalk it up to that extreme decentralization.
Having both Mike Flynn and Debbie Balsamo at SLA speaks volumes for the public policy arm of SLA. Doug Newcomb worked diligently to ensure that a continuing dialogue between SLA and EPA clarified what was going on with the libraries. The situation with EPA affects not only the library profession but scientific research in general and the public’s right to access to envrionmental information in particular. As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s a "hot button" issue and it’s not just a library issue.
I was a bit concerned that Flynn would simply spout a party line, but he seems genuinely dedicated to environmental issues and to improving library services. On the other hand, he works for a political appointee, Molly O"Neill, the Chief Information Officer. My hope is that in balancing what one must do to remain in one’s boss’ good graces — something that is endemic to all organizations, not just the government — with what is essential to improved information access and library services, the EPA will find its way to doing the right thing. The appearance of Flynn at SLA is not, by any means, the end of this particular saga. The Information Today editors and writers will watch it closely.
Editor, ONLINE: The Leading Magazine for Information Professionals, www.onlinemag.net