Federal Libraries Continue Their Mission in the Face of Challenges
by Richard Huffine
When you think of the U.S. federal government and libraries, your first thought is probably of the Library of Congress (LC). As the nation’s largest library, it is devoted to both the research needs of the U.S. Congress and the progress of knowledge for the American people. However, the LC is actually part of an extensive network of more than 1,100 libraries in the U.S. federal government. The federal libraries are dedicated to many subjects, including research disciplines, such as agriculture and medicine, and focused programs, such as the establishment of miles-per-gallon ratings for all makes and models of cars (National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory Library).
Federal libraries range in size and scope and mirror the types of libraries in society: public, school, research, medical, legal, and more. There are primary and secondary school libraries at Department of Defense facilities around the world, as well as branch libraries in national parks, federal prisons, and field offices of federal agencies with a large number of employees and visitors. Each of these libraries shares a common purpose of providing its department, bureau, or field office with access to critical information and services to support the mission of its organization.
The Federal Library Directory is available online from the LC. Developed in 2012 as a joint project of the Federal Research Division (FRD) and the Federal Library and Information Network (FEDLINK), the searchable listing provides information about each library, including size and location. FRD supplied data to the directory that it compiled from a federal library survey and supplemented it with its research on federal agencies and departments. FEDLINK, which supports libraries across all three branches of government with purchasing products and coordinating activities, also provides services to federal libraries to help achieve optimum use of library resources. The directory raises awareness of these federal libraries and aims to in crease more effective use of the resources available.
Library advocate Bernadine E. Abbott-Hoduski shares, “Federal libraries are key in providing back up services to the users of all kinds of libraries. Many librarians refer their users to federal libraries.” Her 2003 book, Lobbying for Libraries and the Public’s Access to Government Information , provides valuable guidelines and tips for library advocates and users of public information. She writes, “Federal librarians need to reach out to all of the staff in their agencies to educate them about the resources available and to ask them for advice on what is needed for the future.”
Despite the effectiveness of illustrating the number and variety of libraries operating within the federal government, the Federal Library Directory does not expose the challenging times they face. For example, it does not capture how well or how poorly federal libraries are funded. Nor does it demonstrate how well those libraries support research and provide resources that are critical for the decisions required to carry out the mission of the hundreds of different agencies responsible for regulation, judicial review, stewardship, and the support of the American people.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has 28 libraries listed in the Federal Library Directory. In 2005, the EPA experienced a significant challenge to its network of regional and laboratory libraries. Facing a severe proposed budget cut, the agency closed three of its regional libraries and took deep cuts in the subscriptions budget for its research laboratory libraries. After swift and persistent intervention by concerned scientists, environmental groups, and the library community, Congress restored funding to ensure that every EPA regional office would continue to have a library. While the experience was painful, it ultimately allowed the EPA to streamline its operation of libraries, digitize a significant portion of its collection, and focus on the service it provides to agency staff and the public. Today, the EPA library network continues to be a confederation of regional, laboratory, and centrally managed functions that support the agency’s mission and the vital work of its research staff.
The 2013 government shutdown and the process of sequestration put pressure on federal agencies to cut costs and find efficiencies. Con tracted services and functions are considered discretionary and are targets for significant cuts or elimination. This financial threat affected the U.S. Air Force’s and the U.S. Census Bureau’s libraries.
There are 74 base libraries with in the U.S. Air Force that provide es sential services to base personnel and their families. Unfortunately, delivering library services and resources to this community is considered discretionary, and this has resulted in successive budget cuts for the past 6 years. In addition, the libraries have been affected by defense budget cuts and sequestration actions. While still in operation, these libraries have all experienced reductions in staff, hours, and funding for collections and services. In June, the American Library Association (ALA) passed a resolution urging the Obama administration, the secretary of defense, and Air Force leadership to develop responsible strategies for allocating resources to support service members and their families. Revitalizing the libraries and services provided on-base is part of this initiative.
The U.S. Census Bureau has operated its library for a number of years using contract employees. When the government shutdown began on Oct. 1, 2013, the library closed, and other nonessential operations ended. Unlike other bureau functions, the library remained closed when the government reopened on Oct. 17 because the contract for library services expired during the shutdown. Concerned Census Bureau employees appealed to their leadership to get a new contract in place, which enabled the library to reopen.
James R. Jacobs, co-founder of Free Government Information, shares his perspective on the challenges and opportunities federal libraries face today: “Federal libraries continue to be in danger of being eliminated, having their budgets cut, losing staff, etc. because each new crop of political appointees is unaware of the value of these libraries in the effectiveness of their agencies.”
The landscape for federal libraries has changed rapidly in the past decade. Today, many support the personnel and customers who live and work remotely. Much of a library’s collections, services, and systems is now available online. Their physical collections are being digitized or can be delivered to their customers within a few days. Federal libraries, large and small, are revisiting how they operate and what their role is within their organizations.
Federal libraries have a long history of collaborating with one another and ensuring that their collections and services complement those of other organizations. A 2013 FEDLINK project illustrates that by comparing the print holdings of federal scientific agency libraries. The project found that only 8% of the total records examined matched a bibliographic record in another federal library. While the study was focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) libraries, it is significant that these major collections had such a small amount of overlap. The research resulted in a report titled “Federal Li brary Bibliographic Records Analysis: Initial Findings, Use Cases, and Recommendations” (bit.ly/1zzC7OT).
In addition to the ways that libraries are changing, the economic picture for federal libraries is changing as well. With the economic down turn that started in 2007 and the subsequent tightening of the federal budget, agencies are revisiting the space allotted to their libraries. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) established a new work space utilization benchmark in 2012 of 190 usable square feet per employee (1.usa.gov/1zQy3tB). In these calculations, libraries are either considered common space or part of the space allocations for their specific work group or organization. This is adding pressure for federal libraries to reduce their footprint and eliminate duplication with resources that are available online or from other agencies or nearby libraries.
Focus on the Larger Mission
Despite these challenges, federal libraries remain important contributors to the successful function of government. Janice Lachance, CEO of the Special Libraries Association (SLA), says, “In a media environment saturated with inaccurate and hyperbolic statements about the government, federal libraries provide an increasingly important means for determining the truth.” Lachance goes on to say that “Federal libraries allow the public to obtain and review information about government agencies and their past work, their current projects, and their future plans.”
The information available through federal libraries includes literature and reports compiled by government scientists and researchers and by their counterparts in academia and the private sector. Patrons are able to review all the available data and draw their own conclusions. This function—the identification, collection, and delivery of information in context—is critical for government at all levels. To explore the Federal Library Directory, visit its webpage (loc.gov/flicc/FLD/index_FLD.html) or go directly to the searchable directory (viewshare.org/views/FRD/directory).