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.
"The librarians are so accustomed to doing searches and know the sources so well, and it would be difficult for scientists to have the same level of comfort," she said. "So, will they take the information they get and use it rather than being exhaustive in their searches?"
An EPA study in 2004 concluded that the libraries saved millions of dollars a year by performing time-consuming research for agency staff members. The general public also uses EPA's libraries.
When a sanitary district proposed a sludge incinerator along Lake Michigan in Waukegan, Ill., a few years ago, activist Verena Owen went to the EPA library in Chicago, and with help from a librarian researched how much mercury comes from incinerators and its toxicity. Owen said her findings helped a successful campaign to relocate the plant.
When she recently heard the library had gone dark, Owen was outraged: "If I had known about it, I would have chained myself to the bookcase."
The EPA's chemical library in Washington assisted scientists who developed drinking water standards and studied the effects of pesticides. "It allowed scientists to check on what they were being told by companies registering new chemicals," said Linda Miller Poore, a longtime contract librarian there.
In May, after learning the library would close, Poore took a job at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center library in Greenbelt, Md., a facility that supports space exploration and global warming research.
But Poore said she was notified recently that the Goddard library would be closed Jan. 1, leaving its collection available only online. She said she was fired Nov. 17 after telling patrons about the plans. The company that employed her declined to comment.
Mather, the Nobel-winning astrophysicist, said the library's paper collection is indispensable. "If we ended up moving into an age where paper did not exist, we would need the equivalent to reach all the texts and handbooks, and until the great library is digitized, I think we need the paper," he said.
In the wake of complaints from scientists and engineers, the center's operations director, Tom Paprocki, said the library was being funded through March and that officials were exploring whether to preserve part of it.
The discovery of discarded scientific journals last year in a dumpster at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley prompted a union grievance.
Plans to slash library space later were scaled back, said union president and scientist Paul K. Davis. "If not for our efforts, about three-quarters of the library materials would have been gone," he said.
At the Energy Department's headquarters, people researched radiation exposure of family members who worked with atomic energy or weaponry. And the library staff helped DOE employees and contractors.
This summer the library closed, except the law section, and became an online service. "By taking our headquarters library and making it virtual, more people can access it than just being in Washington," said Energy Department spokeswoman Megan Barnett, adding that the department's labs often have their own libraries.