This issue of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science began as an idea for an ASIS Annual Meeting session submitted by ASIS Special Interest Group/International Information Issues (SIG/III) in conjunction with the Information Working Group of the Washington, DC, chapter of the Society for International Development (SID). The topic was embraced so enthusiastically that leaders of the two groups decided to share with the entire readership of the Bulletin some of the exciting developments in environmental information.
Ione Auston, SIG/III
Wendy White, SID

Environmental Information: Snapshots Through Time

by Carol Watts, Dorothy Anderson and Sarah Kadec

The complex web of life on earth, including human life, has always been profoundly affected by the natural environment. Understanding of the relationship between humankind and the environment can be traced to the writings of Darwin in the mid-19th century. From that time until the early 1960s, attention focused primarily on the influence of the environment on humans. Not until the side effects of the Industrial Revolution became increasingly evident in the current century, however, did attention shift to human influences on the environment. Over 30 years ago, in her book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson made us aware of how fragile our environment is and how much we are dependent upon it. Books by Carson and other authors, such as Aldo Leopold (A Sand Country Almanac), fostered the modern movement to save the environment.

By the 1960s, concerns about harmful effects of human life on Earth's natural environment had grown to the point that the quest for means to preserve and protect it began in earnest. The citizenry expressed its concerns, and action groups were formed to increase pressure on governments at all levels to begin or strengthen environmental protection programs. In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Most of the early efforts of the new agencies and others concerned with the environment stressed the importance of education, rather than just regulatory policy, in solving environmental problems. Information dissemination became the key to educating the public on ways to preserve the environment. The Study of Environmental Quality Information Programs (SEQUIP) and activities of the Office of Science and Technology Policy focused on the organization, processing and disseminating of environmental information from the government perspective. The Regulatory Liaison Group, composed of the EPA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, addressed the issue through an environmental information subgroup.

The EPA library system was built to provide access to environmental information for the staff of organizations that were drawn together to make up the EPA. This network focused on building a reservoir of environmental information that existed at that time, and through the National Technical Information Service (NTIS), created an index of publications from the offices that made up the new agency. This encouraged the development of a number of information products and services in the private sector. In some instances, these were existing services that added environmental sources to their coverage, but others such as Pollution Abstracts and Environment Abstracts and its document delivery service, Envirofiche, were new initiatives responding to increased public interest.

The NOAA Library and Information Network was also formed during this period, bringing together libraries and information centers from the predecessor agencies that were integrated to form NOAA. These libraries included the Coast and Geodetic Survey Library, which had roots back to the early 19th century, and the Weather Bureau and Bureau of Fisheries collections, which also dated back at least 100 years.

Although the United States was in the vanguard of the environmental movement, the rest of the world community was not far behind. In 1972, the United Nations (UN) Conference on the Human Environment devoted many of its sessions to information and recommended the establishment of an international referral service (INFOTERRA) as a source of information open to all countries. The UN General Assembly approved the initiative.

Also in 1972, the EPA, in cooperation with other governmental organizations, such as the National Science Foundation, Council on Environmental Quality and the National Library of Medicine, organized the National Environmental Information Symposium. More than 1700 participants representing most of the producers and users of environmental information in the United States met to achieve three basic purposes:

Participants - whatever their organizational affiliation, profession or specialized interests - called for improved awareness of, and access to, environmental information.

Later that same year, the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library Science held a three-day Institute on Information Resources in the Environmental Sciences. Co-sponsored by the Illinois Institute for Environmental Quality, the event invited discussion about environmental information sources in government agencies, academia, scientific and educational libraries, and school media programs. At that time, the newness of the environmental sciences field and its interdisciplinary nature were cited as reasons for the difficulty in locating information resources.

Environmental policy and institutions changed during the 1980s when few new regulations were put into effect. The conservative political outlook and interests of business slowed the environmental activists. By the end of the decade, the environment had again become an important issue with more programs being developed. As a result of the 1987 UN World Commission on Environment and Development, the concept of sustainable development where the economy and the environment work together became a hot issue. Environmental problems were seen in relationship to other issues, instead of as fragmented interests isolated by themselves.

Since those early efforts at identifying and organizing environmental information, there have been several ongoing activities that have continued to focus attention on environmental information and its accessibility. The Committee for the National Institute for the Environment (CNIE) has proposed a National Institute for the Environment (NIE). The proposal, which stems from a grassroots effort, is backed by business leaders, scientists, government officials and environmental activists. The NIE's purpose is to bolster the scientific basis of environmental policy and to act as the broker in identifying environmental problems by assessing what we know and funding research on the governmental, business and academic levels in order to come up with information, education and policy for decision makers. The National Library of the Environment, a virtual library linking environmental information and data sources regionally, nationally and eventually worldwide, would be an integral part of the NIE.

Other major activities abound as the U. S. government and many of its international counterparts have decided that environmental information and data collected and contained in agency databases should be available for study by scientists and policy makers worldwide. And that is the genesis for this special issue of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science.

The articles selected for inclusion in this issue show much of the progress made in the planning and implementation of environmental information sources, processes and programs. But they also point to the need for continually examining and evaluating the growth in sources of environmental information to meet the need for diverse communities. In the first article, Sean Gordon and Dan Tunstall describe the World Resources Institute (WRI), an independent organization dedicated to the aggregation of environmental information from sources around the world. Among other challenges, the WRI must face the issue of incompatible data formats and inconsistent data collection.

Two U.S. government projects that seek to encourage cross-discipline research efforts are identified in this issue. Kevin Schaefer describes in detail NASA's efforts to bring together the massive amounts of environmental data collected by dozens of Earth-orbiting satellites and to facilitate cross-discipline use and analysis of the data. Roberta Y. Rand looks at an interagency program that is building an assisted search for knowledge (ASK) system that will provide diverse users with access to the vast array of data acquired in support of the program's mission to observe, understand and predict global change.

Then, with a look at how one local area has capitalized on its combination of natural resources and extensive research activity, Roger L. Born shows how the Monterey Bay region of California is transforming itself into a research and education mecca.

Finally, William B. Feidt and Catherine Roos give a brief overview of some of the environmental resources available on the Internet, and we take a closer look at accessing environmental and geographic information on sub-Sahara Africa in a look at a new World Bank project.


Carol Watts is chief and Dorothy Anderson is reference librarian of the Library and Information Services Division of the Central Library of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sarah Kadec is retired from information consulting.