Critics question NTIS closure

Various government and industry experts fear the Commerce Department's plan to close an agency that collects and sells federal information to the public could make it more difficult for the public to find government documents.

The Commerce Department decided last month that it would close the National Technical Information Service because its core function of selling government information is no longer needed because many agencies offer the same documents to the public for free on federal World Wide Web sites.

NTIS collects, archives and sells scientific, technical, engineering and related business information produced by or for the government. NTIS is required by law to cover all its expenses through the sale of the information. But in the past two years, NTIS has lost millions of dollars, using nearly all of its earnings to stay afloat, said Robert Mallett, deputy secretary of Commerce, at a hearing held by the House Science Committee's Technology Subcommittee. Because Congress does not plan to give NTIS the requested $2 million in funding for fiscal 2000, Commerce had no choice but to close the agency, he said.

Commerce's proposal includes transferring NTIS' paper, microfiche and digital collection and bibliographic database to the Library of Congress. Current and future government technical reports would be electronically sent to the library for archiving. In addition, Commerce is working to ensure that government agencies post their technical and business reports on the Internet for long periods.

However, Michael DiMario, public printer at the Government Printing Office, thinks closing NTIS could make it more challenging for the public to find government documents. "Currently, there are 4,200 Web sites in the federal government, and that number is growing," he said. "We need some organized activity to allow the public to get access to that information. [There's] no central mechanism to force agencies to put [documents] into the system. We need some policy structure that is established."

Simply telling agencies to post documents to the Web is not enough, said Ken Allen, chairman of the NTIS advisory board. Besides "not everyone wants or has access to the Internet," he said at the hearing.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said about two-thirds of NTIS documents requested by the public are three years old and not available on the Internet. He also questioned whether closing NTIS makes sense at all. "If these functions are transferred to another agency...are we saving money or just transferring costs?" he asked.

It is essential that NTIS' basic functions and services continue whether it is at NTIS or another government organization, said Caroline Long, associate university librarian for collection services at the Gelman Library at George Washington University. She called for a thorough study before any final decision is made.

"Government information can be difficult to identify and locate," Long said in her testimony. "NTIS makes available much of the scientific and technical research from hundreds of separate federal departments, agencies and offices. Without this service...our country would waste millions of dollars on repetitive research and development."


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