The closure of five of the 26 regional libraries of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last year sparked international protest. Congressional hearings were held, and a government investigation was launched. In February this year, the president of the American Library Association told Congress that the closures have restricted access to information in at least 31 states.

The EPA is not alone — last year, the Department of Energy closed its headquarters library in Washington DC. And now, NASA is considering downsizing its network of libraries — including the one at its leading science-research centre, the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Tight budgets could bring even more whittling of libraries in the United States. “When budgets are threatened, agencies tend to say let's put the library on the chopping block,” says Tara Olivero, assistant director at the American Library Association in Washington DC.

Libraries are already working to reinvent themselves in a digital world in which online access is fast reducing the need for rows of books and stacks of journals. But a full transition to electronic resources might not save money as agencies hope.

Replacing books with electronic resources may not save money. Credit: CORBIS

Officials at the EPA, whose libraries provide a wide range of information about environmental protection and management, initially cited a proposed budget cut of US$2 million — an 80% drop from the previous year — as the main reason for downsizing its library network. Yet critics point out that internal EPA studies have suggested that having a librarian saves between $3 and $7 in professional staff time for every dollar invested. Since the closures, EPA librarians have struggled to maintain the same level of cost effectiveness. On requesting a publication from another library, they are sometimes told that the item is not available and that no one knows where it is, says Bernadine Abbott Hoduski, a former EPA librarian.

The agency is working to convert all EPA documents into an electronic format, and its spokeswoman Jessica Emond says that the project “has not incurred additional cost”. But critics argue that for agencies considering downsizing their physical libraries, going electronic will almost certainly require more, not less, money.

For a start, not everything can be digitized, and dedicated staff are needed to assess what material should be put in digital form. Content must also be produced using technologies that will be usable decades in the future. “In many ways you need a higher level of expertise to produce and maintain an electronic service than a physical one,” says Anne Kinney, a NASA scientist and chair of a group that recently assessed how the print materials at the Goddard library could be reduced.

The demand for library services other than shelf space has shown no sign of tapering off and, if anything, has increased in recent years. To ensure that electronic resources don't result in costs simply being transferred to individual researchers, those services need sustained funding, librarians say.

Space is not synonymous with service.

At the Naval Research Laboratory library in Washington DC, chief librarian James King says that he has seen a dramatic falling-off in the number of people walking through the door. But “space is not synonymous with service”, he says. Use of the naval library's online databases has doubled in the past five years.

“There is a risk of people seeing libraries only as warehouses,” King says. He and others argue that in a time of information overload, librarians have an ever-more-valuable role in designing web interfaces that facilitate browsing and focused searches. They also create and operate databases specific to the needs of the research communities they serve, and have intricate knowledge of electronic resources across agency- and university-library networks. And in a world where new journals are continually coming online, librarians say they are best placed to negotiate with publishers to obtain the cheapest site-licence contracts and to monitor the changing needs of a specific community of users.

For her part, Kinney envisions a different future for the science library. Instead of silent halls with towering racks of books, smaller meeting places could double up as information centres, where researchers can plug in their laptops, hold discussions, and talk to librarians about how to navigate the myriad resources online.

NASA has not yet made any decisions about closing any libraries, but the issue is likely to remain on the table: “The NASA budget isn't getting any bigger,” notes Robin Dixon, chief librarian of Goddard. The challenge will be to cut back on physical resources without cutting back on service.