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FCW Insider: Search engine heresy

Does anybody remember GILS?


Earlier this week, the National Institute of Standards and Technology published what reads like an obituary for the once ground-breaking initiative.


The Government Information Locator Service, created in the mid-1990s, was an early effort to make government records accessible online using the principles of library science. GILS essentially provided a virtual card catalog system for tracking what information is available and where.


To many younger people, that sounds like a reasonable description of Google, which was precisely NIST's point. Earlier this year, NIST had published a notice in the Federal Register proposing to withdraw the GILS standard. In its notice this week, NIST reported that the Energy Department's Office of Scientific and Technical Information had written to second the motion.


In the years since GILS was issued, DOE wrote, "advances in technology have made the standard obsolete. Today there are many tools available for finding information on the Internet, including Google, FirstGov, meta search engines and the Open Archives Initiative. These newer techniques enable agencies to avoid the ongoing, resource-intensive cataloging efforts mandated by the GILS."


It's an argument based on a common assumption: Sooner or later every technology will be superseded by newer and better technology. From that perspective, the end of GILS as a federal standard is nothing more than a historical oddity.


But it also seems worth asking whether Google, USA.gov et al are truly fulfilling the mission of GILS. Is government information as accessible now as it should be?


After reading the notice, we immediately contacted Eliot Christian, who spearheaded the development of GILS while working at the U.S. Geological Survey. Christian, now retired and working overseas, clearly believes that GILS still has merit. In response to an e-mail message, he wrote:


"The policy objective of GILS was to enhance public access to government information. Believing strongly in the free flow of information in open societies, GILS naturally applied the standards used by libraries worldwide. Those standards, of course, evolved over the years, and those communities who really want to share information are staying current. Fortunately, this includes most of the major international programs for sharing environmental information."


Look for more on this in next week's editorial.

Posted by John Stein Monroe on Sep 04, 2008 at 12:17 PM


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