NTIS: A relic that led feds into cyberspace

The Commerce Department has announced its intention to close down the National Technical Information Service. Secretary William Daley said he would submit legislation to Congress for this purpose, and the department announced that it had started talks with the Library of Congress about taking over the NTIS information holdings.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) issued a press release decrying the Commerce move. NTIS lies in his district, and Davis is doing what any good representative would: protecting jobs on his home turf.

However lamentable, closing down NTIS is not surprising to those who have followed its recent fortunes. The agency's enabling legislation required it to support itself from fees generated by sales of its publications and services. NTIS was expected to break even financially, but for the past few years, the agency had run several million dollars in the red.

In the past year, Commerce began to downsize NTIS aggressively, outplacing personnel to other departmental components in an effort to avoid violating the Anti-Deficiency Act. The law states that agencies may not spend money they do not have, and NTIS was not generating the revenue necessary to cover its operating costs. Downsizing has not stemmed the financial hemorrhaging, and the economics of the situation dictate closing NTIS.

NTIS started shortly after World War II as a clearinghouse for the vast output of scientific and technical information (STI) federal agencies were creating. The basic idea was that the so-called STI agencies would voluntarily give NTIS copies of their publications. NTIS would subsist by selling the publications to the worldwide STI community, pricing its products at the cost of reproduction plus a markup to cover NTIS' operating costs. In return for sending their publications, agencies received a guarantee that NTIS always would have the them available for sale to the public.

Over time, NTIS expanded its reach beyond the STI world to any and all federal information resources it could obtain. It also expanded beyond paper and microfiche to electronic publishing, including magnetic tapes and CD-ROMs. For other agencies, NTIS acted as a fulfillment house, filling orders for publications, billing customers and collecting revenues.

Over the past decade, NTIS led the way from old-style publishing into cyberspace with innovations in electronic information dissemination. What we came to know as FedWorld started out as a general utility electronic bulletin board, a single source for users to find and download federal agency database files. FedWorld was a trailblazer for public access to government information. Its critics quibbled over NTIS' pricing, wanting the information for free, and its customers groused at the chronic inefficiency of the agency's fulfillment services.

Yet no one can question that, for a few shining years, FedWorld showed the rest of the federal establishment what the future of government information services would look like.

NTIS and the Internal Revenue Service failed in their bumbled venture into electronic tax filing. But at least NTIS was out in front trying to break new ground, succeeding more often than not.

NTIS' size and revenues always were tiny compared with the Government Printing Office's, but it grew to equal stature in the public mind. The two agencies have been bitter rivals. GPO always had far greater business volume yet always seemed to play catch-up to NTIS' innovations. Ultimately, NTIS showed the way to its own demise, ushering the federal establishment into the Internet theater of information access. Daley aptly characterized NTIS as having a flawed business premise. The premise was sound in 1950 at the agency's birth. But in the 1990s, the Internet made the virtual clearinghouse a reality, enabling every agency to make major information products instantly available for free. Now everyone can routinely do what once was unique to NTIS, and they can do it at no cost to the consumer.

The show is over for NTIS, but it was a good one for the half-century it lasted.

-- Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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