Science Policy & Funding News

USGS Library Cuts Would Harm Research, Education, Say Scientists

Possible budget drop would halt access by researchers, educators, and the public to nondigitized collections and services of U.S. Geological Survey librarians, according to the agency.

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The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Library, home to one of the largest Earth and natural science collections in the world, faces a 52% funding decrease in the fiscal year (FY) 2018 federal budget proposed by President Donald Trump.

The potential funding loss of $3 million would close at least three of the library’s four branches, eliminate three quarters of the supporting staff, and end public and researcher access to USGS Library collections, according to the FY 2018 USGS budget justification.

This rollback of librarian services and other impacts would damage geoscience research and education, said Earth scientists, educators, and scientific society leaders interviewed by Eos. The harm would also ripple through libraries and other institutions that rely on the USGS Library for materials and guidance not available elsewhere, said librarians and others from outside USGS.

“Defunding the USGS Library has the potential to be devastating,” said Aaron Johnson, executive director of the American Institute of Professional Geologists (AIPG) in Thornton, Colo., referring to the possible effect on research projects of AIPG members.

“If these resources are rendered inaccessible, the nation will lose an invaluable scientific asset and the opportunity for continued commercial return from the information housed in the Library,” wrote 23 science organizations in a 16 June letter to several members of Congress urging continued library funding in 2018 at the level of $5.8 million that USGS currently receives. If that doesn’t occur, the nation “would also lose the federal investment that has already been made in the Library’s collections,” they warned. (The publisher of Eos, the American Geophysical Union, is a signatory of the letter).

Access to Collections and Librarians May Cease

Currently, “USGS librarians provide assistance with finding publications, data, and relevant information to support research activities,” Catharine Canevari, director of the USGS Libraries Program, told Eos. “Librarians assist with hand searching older literature to locate material that has not been digitized, is not catalogued, and is not listed in online indexes.”

With so few staff left after the anticipated cuts, those who would remain are expected to focus on “inward-facing, technical, and operational tasks, with minimal capacity for research support and digitization,” according to a statement that the USGS Office of Communications and Publishing (OCP) provided to Eos. Branch closures would restrict public, researcher, and educator access to nondigitized collections and USGS librarians, the statement also noted. The library operates branches in Reston, Va.; Lakewood, Colo.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; and Menlo Park, Calif.

The most important information to which geologists could lose access is “foundational” materials, such as topographical maps, land use patterns, and historical records, that serve as the starting points for geophysical research projects, Johnson said. He believes that losing access to the nondigitized collections could derail ongoing and future research projects.

Under the proposed funding restrictions, USGS would not be able to maintain its Publications Warehouse, the online official index to USGS-authored publications, according to the OCP statement.  The warehouse site received more than 1.2 million unique visitors in 2016 and was the 11th most visited website in the U.S. Department of Interior in the last 30 days, according to analytics.usa.gov.

No Alternative

Much of the USGS Library’s content is unique or available from fewer than 10 libraries around the world, the agency reported in a 2014 blog post about digitization of its library holdings.

During 2015 and 2016, the USGS Library filled “over 3,600 requests for resources from 820 individual institutions,” according to the OCP statement. “Many other libraries use it as a resource, to get documents and information that they can’t get anywhere else,” said Maeve Boland, director of geoscience policy at the American Geosciences Institute (AGI) in Alexandria, Va.

For example, according to Lisa Long, the librarian at the Ohio Geological Survey (OGS), collections held by the USGS Library and the OGS have little overlap. “In some cases,” she told Eos, “we depend on the USGS collections to have items or be able to explain the provenance of items that we may or may not have in our collections. The organization of the information and help in accessing it that the librarians bring to their public service is not replaceable.”

Potential Education Impacts

Beyond geological research, the USGS Library has provided resources for geology educators and the public for years. USGS estimated that 40% of visitors to the Denver, Colo., branch and 80% of visitors to the Reston, Va., branch were from outside USGS.

Students studying geology in college would also be hit hard by the loss of access to the USGS Library, according to Johnson. An associate professor of geology at Missouri State University for 9 years, Johnson recalled that he relied on data from the USGS Library to create course content for undergraduate classes ranging from introductory to advanced senior-level courses. In particular, he regularly used the USGS Library materials to provide his students with real-world applications of difficult geological concepts. “In one exercise,” Johnson described, “my intro students used peak flooding data available from the USGS stream gauging program to…make predictions of peak flooding events.”

“My students have found working with USGS data to be one of the most valuable parts of their preparation to be professional geoscientists,” he added. “In my opinion, you can’t underestimate the impact on undergraduate education in the geosciences.”

What’s Next?

The requested cut to the USGS Library budget is part of a 15% reduction of overall USGS funding in President Trump’s FY 2018 budget request. In an 18 July draft 2018 spending bill the House Appropriations Subcommittee for the Interior has recommended $116.8 million more for USGS than the president’s request. However, the agency total still falls $46.2 million short of its current funding level, and congressional actions overall on the FY 2018 federal budget remain at an early stage.

In the meantime, “options are being identified and evaluated to inform implementation strategies and decisions that will define the full impact of changes to library services, resources, and collections,” the OCP statement said.

As Boland noted, the agency and its library “are not in control of their own destiny.”

—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), News Writing and Production Intern

Citation: Cartier, K. M. S. (2017), USGS library cuts would harm research, education, say scientists, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO078127. Published on 18 July 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0