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Education Dept. Library Reborn as National Research Facility

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Washington

When Sharon P. Robinson, the Education Department's assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, officially opened the National Library of Education here last week, the ceremony marked a dramatic rebirth for a facility that not long ago faced an uncertain future.

In 1988, the Reagan Administration included the department's research library on a list of nonessential functions that should be run by private contractors. In 1991, the General Accounting Office found that the library was underfunded and underutilized, in a report replete with photographs of haphazardly shelved historic books and collapsed shelves.

It was a vastly expanded library that opened on April 10, the first day of National Library Week.

Traditionally used by department employees, the new library is under a legislative mandate to reach out to communities, educators, and parents nationwide.

Forty library employees take turns staffing toll-free phone lines, fielding questions on everything from undergraduate trends in Eastern Europe to dropout rates in the United States. The library has more than 200,000 books and 900 periodicals, and is linked electronically to the Internet and the Educational Resources Information Center.

"We'll be challenged by you and each other to provide quicker, richer data services," Ms. Robinson told about 75 people gathered for the inauguration ceremony.

Expanded Mission

The Reagan-era privatization initiative fizzled due to bureaucratic inertia, lessened interest on the part of the Bush Administration, and Congressional opposition. (See Education Week, 1/10/90.)

Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., himself a librarian, took a particular interest in the library, attaching protective provisions to various pieces of legislation. Last year, he included in legislation reauthorizing the agency's research functions a section calling for the expansion that came to fruition last week.

"It's exciting. Every day it changes a bit and we're taking on new challenges," said Blane Dessy, the acting library director.

In preparing for its new mission over the past year, the library subsumed several small research and information programs that had been operated elsewhere within the department, and its staff grew from seven to 43 employees.

Due to this consolidation and increased exposure, the library has begun fielding a wider variety of inquiries. In recent weeks, daily volume has reached 200 phone calls, up to 500 letters, and hundreds of electronic queries.

"It's unbelievable," said John N. Blake, the acting director of library reference and information services. "E-mail, voice-mail, letters, walk-ins--we're getting hit on all fronts with demands for information."

President Clinton has requested $2 million for the library in fiscal 1996. The facility's 1995 budget was only $400,000 this year, according to an Education Department spokeswoman, and the additional $1.6 million is intended for acquisitions and other upgrades. Despite Congressional pressure to cut small federal programs, Ms. Robinson said she believes the library's future is secure.

"There's a pretty well-established appreciation for a federal role in education to provide knowledge and equal access to information," Ms. Robinson said.

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