ARCHIVED: Comments on the Draft NCLIS Report and Legislation

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ALA Midwinter Meeting, Washington, DC
January 13, 2001
By Mary Alice Baish
AALL Acting Washington Affairs Representative

My purpose this morning is, first of all, to be brief because it is very important that everyone has an opportunity to quiz NCLIS Deputy Director Judy Russell about some of the concepts and details of the NCLIS report and the PIRA proposal. The work NCLIS has done over a fairly short time frame is to be commended for its acknowledgment that government information is a strategic national asset and for its articulation of the need to develop life cycle management systems for government information.

In the light of full disclosure, I must tell you that Superintendent of Documents Francis J. Buckley and I were members of NCLIS's Panel 4 on "Public-Private Sector Partnerships." We worked very hard to ensure that core principles defining the government's responsibility to provide permanent public access to government information, to guarantee its authenticity, integrity and preservation, and to ensure that it remains free of copyright restrictions--as articulated in the principles incorporated into the 1996 GPO Study--were included in the Panel 4 report. These bedrock principles of public access provide a benchmark as we analyze the draft NCLIS report and the PIRA proposal.

Another benchmark for comparison is the work done by the library community in updating for the electronic age Title 44 chapter 19 language that was part of S. 2288, the Title 44 reform bill introduced by Senators Warner and Ford during the 105th Congress. While that broad legislative proposal was attacked by so many sectors that it didn't even make it to the Senate floor, one lesson that we learned from the experience was that a small incremental approach--say the stand-alone chapter 19 revisions drafted by the library community--was apt to be more successful with Congress than a broad reform bill.

NCLIS held a public hearing on the draft report on December 4, 2000 and many of us offered initial comments. On behalf of AALL, I expressed concern about the feasibility and indeed the necessity of creating a new large bureaucratic agency when consensus seems to be that smaller government works best. I urged NCLIS to review our chapter 19 language, and to recommend incremental legislative changes to ensure, first, the future stability of NTIS--which was in fact the starting point for the two NCLIS studies--and second, the permanent public access of electronic government information. We believe that the ultimate solution to permanent public access should be a coordinated, collaborative approach involving government entities across all three branches of government, and library and archive partners.

Since the December hearing, NCLIS has received many official comments, including a joint letter from GODORT, AALL, ARL and the ALA Washington Office. In this letter, we acknowledged the vast scope and importance of the issues covered in the report as well as the limited amount of time available for review and discussion by our respective communities. That review process begins here at Midwinter for GODORT, and we look forward to your comments and discussions.

Our joint letter also raised a number of significant questions and concerns that I would like to mention briefly this morning:

First, we need to think seriously about the implications of shifting primary dissemination responsibilities to the executive branch from the legislative branch.

Second, the report proposes a congressional review of hundreds of laws that Congress has enacted to assess the government's cumulative public information resources program. This would require an enormous investment of time and resources yet the benefits are not well defined nor is it clear how such a review would contribute to enhancing public access to government information.

Third, the concept of an Information Dissemination Budget line item for agencies may be noteworthy and was very much discussed by the library community during the drafting of our chapter 19 legislation during the 105th Congress. And yet the .03% figure proposed for scientific and technical information (STI) appears to be well below the current expenditures of a number of STI agencies, thus reducing the federal investment in these activities. Further, the figures proposed for GPO's public information dissemination programs and the relevant public good functions of NTIS are well below the FY2001 appropriations figures for GPO and the funding needed for NTIS services. In addition, there are no guarantees that Congress would be willing to fund adequately the substantial increased costs for a new large agency such as the PIRA.

Fourth, of great concern to many of us is the recommendation that public and private sector partnerships should be strengthened, extended and expanded where the private sector can serve as the government's agent in a wide variety of roles. This requires careful review and further discussion concerning what roles are inherently governmental vs. partnering with not-for-profit and for profit entities in public dissemination activities. Certainly the American public is well served by a diversity of information providers, including private sector products and services. However, at the same time the private sector should not attempt to impede federal agencies from providing enhanced electronic access and services, such as FirstGov.

Fifth, when assessing the benefits and drawbacks of the PIRA proposal, at the end of the day the key question to ask is if and how these changes improve access to and use of government information by the public and whether they validate the access principles to which we all are committed. It is further important that any proposed new organizational model reflect the current and evolving technological capabilities of the networked environment that facilitate distributed information collection, processing, and dissemination of information.

Sixth, while the report commends the important role of today's government documents librarians, it may not encourage libraries to support the role of government information specialists in a mostly-electronic environment. The report suggests that LSTA funding could be used to provide libraries with funding for the education and training of librarians and other information professionals, yet it fails to acknowledge that LSTA funds are extremely limited and requests for funding far exceed available funds. The National Leadership Grants are limited to under 4% of the Institute of Museum and Library Services library appropriations, and these are devoted to a number of different arenas such as joint library/museum collaboration and preservation or digitization of library materials in addition to training.

To sum it all up, then, we must ask ourselves a number of questions as we analyze the NCLIS draft report and legislative proposal: 1) do these proposed changes meet the goal of improving the public's access to government information; 2) do they strengthen or weaken the FDLP; 3) do they stand up to the core public access principles we believe in; 4) are they necessary in light of the networked environment; and 5) is the proposal for a new agency even politically feasible?

Lastly, I think it is very important for everyone to have the opportunity to review comments, both pro and con, that NCLIS has received on the report and the PIRA proposal. Letters have been sent to NCLIS by the Public Printer, the U.S. Archivist and the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts that raise very legitimate concerns with the draft report and the proposed legislation. I hope that these letters, our library community comments and the views of all interested parties will be posted to the NCLIS web site shortly so that all stakeholders can carefully review them.

Thank you very much.