The Internet should serve as the U.S. government's primary archive
Remember good old NTIS? That's the National Technical Information Service to the anti-acronymic among you. For decades, this Commerce Department unit has collected and distributed, mainly in print and microform, the contract research of the federal government's executive branch. Other government dissemination areas would rise and fall, come and go, but slow-and-steady NTIS hung in there. It managed the nation's gray literature, making sure it didn't fade to static snow. Without this service and others like it in the government, most federally funded research would have stayed in the hands of the contractor and a handful of bureaucrats. The taxpayer's dollar might have turned from an investment in the nation's research knowledge base into be-ribboned federal freebies to major government contractors. So one can reliably allege that NTIS played its part in the ongoing technological growth of post-World War II America, thank you very much.
So what was NTIS's reward for all this yeoman-like effort? It has spent the last year or so fighting for its life as the executive branch hierarchy considers NTIS's failure to meet what it apparently regards as its prime directive: cost recovery. True, time and tide have reduced the role of federal funding in the nation's scientific and technical development from the days of the Cold War spending boom. But does that not make full and forceful dissemination of the material we do develop all the more important? Blithely, the eager executioners point to our friend the World Wide Web as a simple solution. And so it may be. But not without effort, organization, commitment, and resources.
But from the lemon comes the lemonade. It would take legislation to destroy NTIS. The problem now lies in Congress' hands. Responding to pleas and a swirl of controversy over the Commerce Department's death sentence, Congress looked at the case and decided to defer final judgment until it had a better grasp of the bigger picture. In fact, it has asked the question so many of us have wanted it to ask for some time. No, not "What information policy should the federal government set for the nation?" (though that's certainly an interesting question). Rather, the one that asks, "What information policy should the federal government set for itself?" Before one tries to be Martha Stewart and tell everyone else how to live, one should first clean one's own house.
In June, Senator John McCain asked the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science to produce a report for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that would serve to review:
[T]he reforms necessary for the federal government's information dissemination practices. At a minimum, this review should include assessments of the need for: proposing -new or revised laws, rules, regulations, missions, and policies; modernizing organization structures and functions so as to reflect greater emphasis on electronic information planning, management, and control capabilities, and the need to consolidate, streamline, and simplify missions and functions to avoid or minimize unnecessary overlap and duplication; revoking NTIS's self-sufficiency requirement; and strengthening other key components of the overall federal information dissemination infrastructure.
Hallelujah! They're finally looking in the right direction. They've realized that the information revolution that surrounds us all requires breadth of view before detail work. One cannot just muddle through any more. We need a general policy to take advantage of all the potential benefits and avoid the most dangerous pitfalls.
What does the federal government need to do? First, it must adopt a firm worldview and vision of where information is now and where it's going. It should recognize and commit to the realization that the Internet has initiated a platform that …