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National Archives and NTIS Agree on the Preservation of Digital Scientific and Technical Information
by
Posted On December 13, 2010
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) concluded an agreement ensuring long term access to the digital scientific, technical, and engineering information (STEI) collected by NTIS. Under the terms of the agreement, technical reports and material collected and maintained by NTIS will be preserved in accordance with NARA standards. Preservation of these materials will facilitate access to the historical records of federally funded research in the future.

Bruce Borzino, director of NTIS said, “This new relationship with the National Archives strengthens the benefit of federal agency compliance with The American Technology Preeminence Act when transferring their agency STEI content to NTIS for dissemination to the private sector, academia, state and local governments, and federal agencies. Under this agreement with the National Archives agency transfers of digital STEI to NTIS will be regarded the same as if the agency transferred its permanent digital STEI records to the National Archives.”

The goals of the agreement are to:

  • Focus on a total electronic solution to the collection, distribution, long term access, preservation, and other archival processes
  • Invest in format and media conversion solutions to increase the availability of significant scientific and tangible historical content in the long term
  • Create through a collaborative effort, a joint dissemination and long term archival environment that supports future development of the NTIS e-science collection and NARA’s Electronic Records Archives system.

David Ferriero, archivist of the United States., said, “This opportunity for the National Archives and NTIS to innovate and collaborate in the stewardship, access, and long-term archival preservation of the NTIS digital scientific collections represents a major step forward in preserving America’s scientific heritage. This agreement will help assure both Congress and the American public that the NTIS collection of digital scientific, technical, engineering, and business information documenting unclassified federally funded research is preserved for the long-term benefit of future generations of researchers around the world.”

Current research can be accessed through NTIS, Science.gov or through federal agency databases, such as Department of Energy’s information bridge. While federal agencies are mandated to deposit their reports with NTIS they often do not do so. Science.gov searches 45 databases and 2,000 websites from 14 federal agencies. The NARA/NTIS agreement will not affect retrieval of reports of federally funded research or the underlying data sets. Relatively recent reports created in digital format are more readily available than older materials.

Since the end of World War II the federal government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on research. Most of this research can be accessed only on paper or microfiche. Many documents may have been lost, or stored in inaccessible places and are not available. Some sponsoring agencies no longer exist or have been absorbed by other agencies. Searching for older scientific and technical reports and data sets can be frustrating. Researchers often have to consult many databases and agencies to ascertain if old reports on a particular subject exist. If more universities and government agencies digitize older collections, searchers will have an easier experience finding needed information.

The NTIS collection consists of roughly three million documents. Only 600,000 reports are in digital format. Don Hagen, associate director of NTIS said that there is no plan to digitize the NTIS collection. When a paper or microfiche document is requested it is digitized. Federal agencies with the exception of NARA have paid little or no attention to the need to digitize older technical reports and make them available to scholars and others interested in the history of science and technology. Realization of the agreement’s long term goals appear to be doubtful because of the lack of funds and the scattering of documents among hundreds of federal agencies and units.

Hagen pointed out that agencies are moving to repositories to store and open collections for public use. NTIS is assisting agencies in establishing repositories. It is not clear how these repositories will operate or whether they will facilitate greater public access. NTIS has greater difficulties because it is required by law to recover costs through fees. The need for NTIS and the requirement for recovery of costs have been debated for years. Despite the constraints of having to recover costs, NTIS has continued to provide valuable services. The long term sustainability of the NTIS business model is in question especially with increasing importance of science and engineering and the need to access reports and data sets. In addition, there has been greater demand for agencies to make the results of taxpayer funded research available at no cost to the information seeker.

Larry Baume, Life Cycle Management Division, NARA indicated that the NTIS business model precludes NARA from providing free access to NTIS material. He also pointed out that NARA holds all NTIS reports on microfilm. He added that the metadata created by NTIS is especially valuable in describing the collection and providing access points.

The NTIS/NARA agreement clearly establishes the basis for preservation of scientific and technical information. It does not provide for the digitization of the 2.4 million NTIS documents in paper or microfiche. Conversion of this material and other older material residing in federal agencies is a critical need. While scientists and engineers need the most accurate and timely information they also rely on older information. They often rely on older information to learn of past experiments, processes, techniques, and findings, and use this information as the basis for current or future work. Communication and information use are the building blocks for the creation of new information and knowledge.

The current NTIS business model is not likely to provide funds sufficient to digitize the NTIS collection. Other funding will be needed. NARA’s leadership in this effort will help. It is likely that for the next few years federal agency budgets will be frozen or reduced. While NTIS will continue to digitize older reports based on requests, the backlog will remain. A major project to digitize older reports, preserve them, and make them available may have to wait for better days.


Miriam A. Drake is professor emerita at the Georgia Institute of Technology Library.

Email Miriam A. Drake

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