Thursday, January 05, 2006

EPA website and databases

Before the winter break I went to a workshop on the new Environmental Protection Agency website. Sponsored by the Metropolitan New York Libraries Council Science SIG, this workshop covered the redesigned EPA website, and gave a quick overview of some of the many databases and services available. The speaker was Chuck Herrick, a consultant working with the EPA on the website redesign. I'll cover just a few resources that caught my eye. There are a lot more on the site.

First of all, the booklet that went with the workshop is available from the EPA Resources for Librarians site, There are web and PDF versions of the handout, and a printable poster/flyer.

The major redesign of the EPA website is a move from a strictly office organization to a subject organization. The website was originally a collection of office homepages, with resources associated with and produced by each office. While this is still somewhat true (i.e. radiation is related to air because both are under the auspices of the Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation) there has been a much greater effort to make subject access available. The Browse EPA Topics scheme covers a wide range of subject areas in several layers and was created by EPA librarians. Recommended sites for each topic are assigned by the librarians, rather than computer-based relevancy algorithms.

There is also a fairly sophisticated search function. Both the quick and advanced searches have the unique feature of context based searching--when you are on a specific page or topic, the search will only search those pages underneath your current page by the subject/organizational hierarchary. So if you are looking in Indoor Air Pollution, and do a search, you will only get results within the Indoor Air Pollution topic. The Advanced Search offers the option of searching All or Selected EPA web pages. Selected pages are those that directly related to the keywords entered, as determined by the subject categories. All pages will search the whole website.

I should point out here that, while the EPA website has over 1 million HTML and PDF files, it is not the only searchable EPA resource. You can also search the EPA Libraries catalog (OLS), and search for EPA publications both online and in print. Most of the online publications will probably come up by searching the site, but if you are specifically looking for publications, rather than web sites, the publication searches will eliminate the extra hits.

The News and Laws, Regulations, and Dockets sections are fairly self-explanatory. Some of the Laws links go out to other governmental sites, such as Thomas, the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), and the Federal Dockets Management System (

There are also a huge number of databases (and downloadable software) available. The few that we reviewed in the workshop include the Terminology Reference System, which is the vocabulary system used to classify EPA materials (so it provides the best search terms), and the ECOTOX database, which allows you to search for studies linking particular species with toxic chemicals (i.e. what chemicals are confirmed to affect, say, raccoons.)

Some of the most informative (and most fun) resources are under the Where You Live section. You can examine flooding or discharge sites for your city or neighborhood with Window to My Environment, chart environmental, health, social, and economic data in the Environmental Justice Geographic Assessment Tool, or investigate Air or Water quality. There are also links to the EPA Regional Offices and State Environmental Offices. The speaker pointed out that many people come to the national EPA website with questions that are better handled by local envirnomental offices, such as questions about state or local pollution or zoning regulations.

There are also a wide range of educational resources, organized by grade level. There are no specific resources for college/university students, since everything on the website is supposed to be written at a level that a college student, or educated layperson, can understand. The Environmental Kids Club is aimed at preschool - 4th grade, the Student Center is for grades 5-8, and the High School Environmental Center for 9th-12th. There is also a Teacher's site with classroom and home-schooling resources, a link to the Office of Environmental Education and a site for researchers with information about EPA research programs.

Also included on the main site are links to Spanish Language resources, programs, career information, and organizational information. There is so much here (300 homepages and 1 million+ pages) that you could spend hours just exploring. If you can't find what you need using the resources on the website, you can even email the librarians (Contact Us--Comments and Questions--Ask a Question) for help. Also, don't forget to try FirstGov if you're not sure if the EPA is the right agency for the information you're seeking.

Thanks to the METRO Science SIG for the opportunity to learn more about this great resource.


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