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  • Writer's pictureAmy Tippett

Library Visit #3: Specialty Library

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Introduction

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. The FDA is responsible for “protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices; and by ensuring the safety of our nation's food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation (FDA, 2018).

The FDA Library falls under the Office of Digital Transformation, which reports directly to the FDA Commissioner. Previously, the FDA Library was administered by the Office of Regulatory Affairs. Throughout its history, it served in two divisions under the Office of Regulatory Affairs: the Office of Communications and Project Management and the Office of Training, Education, and Development. The musical-chair aspect of where the FDA Library should be located speaks volumes about the FDA Library as a whole. There is no definitive home for this library, and now there is no physical home for it, except for government cubicles in an office in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. It is also a library that is proactively redefining its mission to meet the needs of the FDA community and to ensure that they do not become obsolete, as many federal government libraries have.

Because they do not have a physical library for my library visit, I interviewed Christine Baker via Zoom on March 13, 2023. Unless otherwise sourced, the information in this report is from that interview. She has been a librarian with the FDA since 2010. She has her MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh, which was an online program.

Tippett, A. (2023, March 10). Screenshot of Zoom with FDA Librarian Christine Barker and MLIS candidate Amy Tippett [Photo].


Digital Access

All federal libraries must be accessible to the public, but the FDA Library doesn’t serve the public. In fact, its digital library is only available through the intranet for FDA employees. When a member of the public does request information from the FDA Library, they are referred to the National Institutes of Health Library, the National Library of Medicine, or the Library of Congress.

The main reason the FDA Library is closed to the public is that the FDA regulates $2.7 trillion in the U.S. Budget (FDA, 2022). Because of this, its IT security is very highly controlled, and only FDA employees and federal contractors cleared by the FDA have access to the FDA intranet.

The initial contact FDA staff has with librarians is conducted electronically because there is no longer a phone number for the FDA Library. FDA staff engages with the library staff through a virtual chat reference on their Microsoft Teams platform. Four librarians staff the virtual chat reference during regular business hours. FDA staff can also email the library or submit a reference request ticket.


Physical Space and Accessibility

More than 20 years ago, there were five or six libraries within the FDA. But over time, the libraries were merged into one physical library in White Oak, Maryland. Then about ten years ago, the library space was decreased by 50% and then downsized even more. During the downsizing process, the collection was moved into a warehouse that allowed for easy access to the collection if needed. Then in 2019, the library space was designated for the executive offices of the FDA, and the library was moved into an office building in Rockville, Maryland. After examining the lack of usage of the collection in the warehouse, it was determined that the physical collection was no longer needed. Because there would no longer be a physical space for the library and the physical collection wasn’t being used, more than 95% of the collection was discarded.

The FDA Library is required to follow Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (FDA, 2018). Section 508 requires “Federal agencies to ensure that individuals with disabilities who are members of the public or Federal employees have access to and use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) that is comparable to that provided to individuals without disabilities, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency" (FDA, 2018). The FDA Library ensures that Section 508 compliance is met with all of its services. They used to have one person primarily responsible for this, but now it is everyone’s responsibility since that position was eliminated.


Services and Intellectual Access

One of the main functions of the FDA Library is its document delivery services. FDA staff are encouraged to request documents from the FDA Library instead of purchasing them on their own. The FDA librarians then collaborate with other librarians in the federal library system for interlibrary loans whenever possible. Because they can borrow items from the National Institutes of Health Library, the National Library of Medicine, or the Library of Congress at no charge, they encourage the FDA staff to refrain from using funds from their limited budgets to purchase journals for the use of one article.


People (Patrons and Staff Members)

The FDA Library is staffed by 12 librarians with MLIS degrees and two library technicians responsible for document delivery. Most of the employees are women over the age of 60. Three full-time librarians are primary responsibility for conducting literature searches for FDA staff. An example of the type of research the FDA Librarians currently conduct for staff includes an integral part of the drug approval process. When pharmaceutical companies submit drug approval applications, the FDA Library researchers validate the references cited on the application. These research positions are due to phase out within the next five years. All employees will be trained on how to do their research using EndNote and other research databases. There is also a librarian who is a full-time editor whose primary focus is editing manuscripts, articles, and other documents for FDA staff.

Most people who use the FDA library historically have been FDA researchers. However, the researchers make up only a small part of the more than 18,000 FDA employees. To expand the number of users of the FDA library, the library has begun to pivot to provide additional services to the staff. For example, the library has begun to manage the LinkedIn Learning portal for FDA staff, which is viewed as a way of keeping the library relevant to what staff needs.

They used to have more than 20 librarians. Due to budget constraints, they have not been able to fill positions when someone leaves the FDA.


Collections

The remaining physical collection is mostly historical documents regarding the creation of the FDA. They are in the process of digitizing these documents, and then they will be stored in a different office within the FDA. It is estimated that its collection has around 10,000 with about 1,000 physical items. The FDA Library’s collection includes access to many databases and learning platforms. This is one of the reasons why the library was placed in a traditional IT department. The FDA considers the FDA Library’s role now more in the information science field, and the goal is to teach people how to research information independently of a librarian.

In 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy updated a policy to make, “the results of taxpayer-supported research immediately available to the American public at no cost” (The United States Government, 2022). The FDA comprises nine centers with specific focuses like food, cosmetics, or pharmaceuticals. Some of the individual centers have created their public-facing reference websites to allow the public to download documents because of this updated policy. The FDA Library is in the midst of mandating that there be some cohesion to how the nine centers comply with this policy.

The FDA Library does not have any physical materials to loan to staff members. An exception to this is if a staff person requests a physical item acquired through an interlibrary loan.

Tippett, A. (2023, March 10). Screenshot of a sample of one of the FDA center's resource libraries available to the public. [Photo].


Other Characteristics

There are currently 1,400 federal libraries and information centers (Library of Congress, 2023). The FDA Library seems to be evolving for the sake of not being eliminated. In my conversation with FDA Librarian Christine Baker, she noted that her hope is that the FDA Library is the first place FDA staff turn to when they have a question. To get to that point, she said awareness of their existence is where she is starting. By working on projects with LinkedIn Learning, she hopes to raise awareness of the library and the different resources available. Leveraging the library as an information source may be the only way to save this library from extinction.

In many ways, it seems that the struggle that federal libraries may be experiencing is similar to what public libraries are experiencing. The return on investment of libraries is challenged in both types of libraries. Because of this, the need to evolve with the changing needs of the customers should continuously be examined. The FDA Library seems to have been on the brink of extinction a few times, but visionary librarians like Christine Baker are up for the challenge of creatively determining the mission of the library.


References

FDA. (2018). What we do. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/about-

fda/what-we-do.

FDA. (2021). Requirements checklists for section 508. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

https://www.fda.gov/about-fda/internet-accessibility/requirements-checklists-section-508.

FDA. (n.d.). Fact sheet: FDA at a glance. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

https://www.fda.gov/about-fda/fda-basics/fact-sheet-fda-glance.

Library of Congress. (2023). Federal Library Directory - Federal Library and Information

Network (FEDLINK). Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/flicc/FLD/index_FLD.html.

The United States Government. (2022, August 25). OSTP issues guidance to make federally

funded research freely available without delay. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/ostp/news-updates/2022/08/25/ostp-issues-guidance-to-make-federally-funded-research-freely-available-without-delay/.











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