The NASA library in Greenbelt, Md., was part of John C. Mather's daily routine for years leading up to the astrophysicist's sharing of the 2006 Nobel Prize for shedding new light on the big bang theory of creation. He researched existing space hardware and instrumentation there while designing a satellite that collected data for his prize-winning discovery.
So when he learned that federal officials were planning to close the library, Mather was stunned.
"It is completely absurd," he said. "The library is a national treasure. It is probably the single strongest library for space science and engineering in the universe."
Mather is one of thousands of people who critics say could lose access to research materials as the government closes and downsizes libraries that house collections vital to scientific investigation and the enforcement of environmental laws.
Across the country, half a dozen federal libraries are closed or closing. Others have reduced staffing, hours of operation, public access or subscriptions.
In Washington, books are boxed at an Environmental Protection Agency library that helped toxicologists assess health effects of pesticides and chemicals. The General Services Administration headquarters library where patrons conducted research on real estate, telecommunications and government finance was shuttered this year, as was the Department of Energy headquarters library that collected literature for government scientists and contractors.
Officials say the cutbacks have been driven by tight budgets, declining patronage and rising demand for online services. And they say leaner operations will improve efficiency while maintaining essential functions. "We are trying to improve access and ... do more with a little less money," said Linda Travers, acting assistant administrator for the EPA's office of environmental information.
Although hundreds of federal libraries remain open, critics say the downsizing, especially at the EPA, demonstrates the Bush administration's indifference to transparent government and to scientific solutions to many pressing problems.
"Crucial information generated with taxpayer dollars is now not available to the public and the scientists who need it," said Emily Sheketoff, head of the American Library Assn.'s Washington office. "This is the beginning of the elimination of all these government libraries. I think you have an administration that does not have a commitment to access to information."
Opponents of the EPA's reductions say they are likely to slow the work of regulators and scientists who depend on librarians and reference materials that are not online.
They fear that some publications will never be digitized because of copyright restrictions or cost. They worry that important material will be dispersed, discarded or lost. And they contend that many people will lose access to collections because they cannot navigate online services.
In addition to shutting its headquarters library and a chemical library in the nation's capital, the EPA has closed regional libraries in Chicago, Kansas City and Dallas that have helped federal investigators track sources of fish kills and identify companies responsible for pollution.
The plans prompted the EPA's own compliance office to express concern that cuts could weaken efforts to enforce environmental laws. EPA employee unions decried the severity of a proposed $2.5-million cut in a library budget that was $7 million last fiscal year. And, at the request of three House committees, the Government Accountability Office now is examining the reductions.
"Congress should not allow EPA to gut its library system, which plays a critical role in supporting the agency's mission to protect the environment and public health," 18 U.S. senators, nearly all Democrats, said last month in a letter seeking restoration of library services until the issue can be reviewed.
The EPA said the president's proposed budget had accelerated efforts to modernize the system, and they said that library visits were declining.
"I think we are living in a world of digitized information," said Travers of the EPA. "In the end there will be better access."
Travers said all EPA-generated documents from the closed libraries would be online by January and the rest of the agency's 51,000 reports would be digitized within two years. The EPA, she said, would not digitize books, scientific journals and non-EPA studies but would keep one copy of each available for inter-library loans.
The Library of Congress has digitized more than 11 million items in its collection of 132 million, and it retains the originals. But Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for library services there, said maintaining library space with staff provides important benefits, especially at specialized libraries.