National Commission on Libraries and
Information Science: Why Not?
A. Drake • Professor Emerita, Library, Georgia Institute of Technology
and off for the last 20 years, the National Commission on Libraries
and Information Science (NCLIS)
has had to fight for its existence.
Two administrations have tried
to get rid of NCLIS by requesting
zero budget. Interested members
of Congress saved the agency.
is one of the smallest agencies in the U.S. government, with a
million-dollar budget, hardly
a drop in the ocean of the trillion
dollar plus federal
budget. While the Commission's work has been significant, it suffers
from lack of visibility inside
and outside the government. For
its outstanding work on government information has been largely
ignored, received little publicity,
and gone unnoticed by the public.
The Commission's lack of a constituency
outside the library community
hampers its ability to interest
the media and to obtain greater
funding for its operations.
President Bush's FY2003 budget recommendations contained no
money for NCLIS. Once again members of Congress are going to
bat for the agency. In a letter dated September 9, 2002, 14 members
of the House of Representatives asked Congressman Ralph Regula,
chair of the Subcommittee on Appropriations for Labor, Health
and Human Services (HHS), and Education, to add $2.8 million
for NCLIS to the federal budget. The letter pointed out the fallacy
in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) argument that the
responsibilities of NCLIS could be carried out by the Institute
of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). NCLIS is a policy agency
while IMLS, a programmatic agency, administers federal funds
for libraries. The two agencies should complement each other,
rather than compete. However, it appears that the administration
does not value the advice it receives from the Commission, nor
does it understand the potential return on investment in information
As we went to press, information arrived that the Bush administration
planned to add the $1 million budget request to the FY2004 budget.
NCLIS was created in 1970 in response to recommendations issued
by the National Advisory Commission on Libraries, the Knight
Commission1, appointed by President
Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. In the Executive Order establishing
the National Advisory Commission, the President stated, "...merely
piling up new knowledge is not enough; we must apply that knowledge
to better our lives."2 The statement
indicated the nation's dependence on libraries and the need for
planning. The National Advisory Commission was charged to "make
a comprehensive study and appraisal of the role of libraries
as resources for scholarly pursuits, as centers for the dissemination
of knowledge, and as components of the evolving national information
systems." Other charges included appraisal of public agency programs
and library funding. The Commission also had the assignment of
making recommendations for government and private agencies to "ensure
an effective and efficient library system for the Nation."
The Knight Commission expressed a concern for "adequate library
services" being provided for individuals, corporations, and government.
The report pointed out that a library is not a warehouse, but
instead "a particular kind of meeting place, and it grows from
certain major attributes of the human mind and spirit."3 The
Commission articulated the necessity to preserve history for
future generations and the requirement to provide access to all
The Knight Commission recognized the role of technology and
the potential for development of new tools and relationships
to cope with the ever-increasing amount of information, as well
as the advantage of reducing duplicative holdings in different
libraries. Since 1969, when the Knight Commission report was
published, the world has experienced an extraordinary revolution
in communication, computing, and information. In 1969, we did
not have PCs, the Internet, or the World Wide Web. People thought
in kilobytes, not petabytes. [A petabyte is approximately a thousand-trillion
bytes, or a trillion gigabytes. Google operates with data storage
of two petabytes; other petabyte-scale data handlers include
AOL, Hotmail, and Yahoo!.] Storage was expensive and telecommunications
costs ran high. In 1969, if a user left the library with a book
or photocopy, librarians assumed they had succeeded in doing
their job. Often they did not know whether the book or article
answered a question, reduced uncertainty on an issue, helped
solve a problem, or simply provided pleasure. While telecommunications,
computing, storage, hardware, and software costs have dropped
significantly since 1969, some of the same questions and problems
Knight Commission Recommendations
The Commission recommended "the establishment of a National
Commission on Library and Information Science as a continuing
Federal Planning agency." Other recommendations included the
establishment of a Federal Institute of Library and Information
Science to perform basic and applied research in the library
and information sciences; strengthening state library and other
agencies; and strengthening the role of the Library of Congress
as a national library. These recommendations were made within
the context of objectives based on inadequacies in library and
information services that the Commission had observed. Ultimate
objectives focused on the provision of library and information
services for the public, all levels of education, and all fields
of research. The objectives included goals of improving physical
access and ensuring the adequate training of staff.
The Internet has made a huge improvement in library services
and has driven the development of information resources available
to all. More than 50 percent of the households in the U.S. now
have access to the Internet, with the number increasing every
year. Through the acquisition of electronic journals and books
and the implementation of digital initiatives, librarians have
increased the availability of information and resources to their
users through the Internet. The quality or adequacy of staff
training is not as critical an issue as it was in 1969. The problem
today is lack of staff. The number of librarians expected to
retire in the next few years, coupled with more jobs in industry
for librarians, has created a growing shortage of staff for our
public and academic libraries.
Establishment of NCLIS
The Knight Commission's recommendations were incorporated into
the legislation (PL 91-345) establishing NCLIS. Since 1970, the
law has been amended, but its basic purposes remain the same:
advising the President and the Congress on the implementation
of policy; conducting surveys and studies relative to library
and information needs; developing plans to meet national library
and information needs; and advising federal, state, local, and
private agencies regarding library and information sciences4.
The legislative mandates cover broad areas.
Published in 1973, the Commission's first annual report observed
that the legislation establishing NCLIS recognized the huge growth
in new information and knowledge and the changing information
needs of the population. In its early years, NCLIS gathered data
on library and information needs through meetings with library
associations, professional societies, government agencies, and
other organizations. The Commission stressed its role in planning
library services and assuring equity of access. The meetings
revealed barriers to effective planning and cooperation and lack
of understanding of user needs. Then, as now, funding was not
adequate to implement the Commission's mandates.
In 32 years, despite small budgets, NCLIS has funded important
surveys and research projects. The Commission also managed two
White House Conferences on Library and Information Services.
NCLIS reports covered issues such as government information,
interlibrary loan, public library funding, continuing education,
governance of library networks, national information policy,
school library media programs, information literacy, and public/private
The Commission continues to study and make recommendations
on the dissemination of federal government information. Three
NCLIS documents contained significant findings and recommendations
on the dissemination and preservation of government information.
In 1978, the Commission funded Bernard Fry to study the role
of government documents in a national program of library and
information services5. Fry's findings
and recommendations remain relevant today, even though no national
program for library and information services exists and, when
the study was done, the primary method of distributing government
information was on paper.
Fry's observed, ". . . government publications at all levels federal,
state and local are today a major source of information
in practically every field of endeavor and are crucial to informed
public decision-making."6 The study
built on a broader notion of public sector information, one that
extended to the United Nations and other agencies as well as
governments. In 1978, when government information was far more
difficult to find, there was concern about the underutilization
and lack of appreciation for the value of government information.
While the availability of government information on the Internet
and finding tools, such as FirstGov and GPO Access, make it easier
now to locate the information, public awareness of its existence
and value is not widespread. The public has not demanded that
the federal government bring consistency and coherence to information
Fry also found the lack of staff training to be a major barrier
to widespread use of government information. While people are
becoming more competent and self-sufficient in information finding
through direct use of the Internet, the role of information professionals
remains critical in providing value-added services. Adding value
necessitates training beyond merely knowing where to find information;
it includes teaching how to evaluate the timeliness, accuracy,
reliability, units of measurement, and relevance of a dataset.
Fry recommended that NCLIS undertake a comprehensive study
of public access to government information. That study was completed
in 2001. Other recommendations focused on the establishment of
a national center for government publications and a comprehensive
study of the depository library program. The Center has not materialized,
and the needed comprehensive study of the Depository Library
Program remains undone. There were strong recommendations for
research and planning programs. The research agenda proposed
by Fry called for the identification of users and nonusers of
government information and the study of means for reaching nonusers,
how to integrate government information with mainstream publications,
the identification of areas in which the private sector could
improve public access, the development of education programs
for the public and document specialists, applying citation analysis
to measure use of government information by scholars, and drafting
promotion and publicity tools to assist users and non-users to
become aware of the existence and location of government information.
Fry's recommendations have not lost their relevance with time
and still offer an agenda that could provide benefits today.
The second document of importance to NCLIS' activities in public
information is the "Principles of Public Information," adopted
by the Commission June 29, 1990. NCLIS confined its definition
of public information in this document to information issued
by the federal government. The Principles are based on the idea
that government information is owned by the people and is a national
resource. NCLIS asserted, "We assert that public information
is information owned by the people, held in trust by their government,
and should be available to the people except where restricted
by law." The principles set forth federal obligations to preserve
public information in all formats, guarantee the dissemination
and redistribution of public information, safeguard the privacy
of individuals, and ensure widespread access, unobstructed by
In 2001, NCLIS issued a third document relating to government
information entitled "Comprehensive Assessment of Public Information
Dissemination." Many people volunteered their time and energies
to this study because of the value of the project. Among the
36 recommendations contained in the report, one of the most important
was the adoption of a national goal to treat "public information
as strategic resource."7 Knowledge
and information are valuable and protected resources for businesses,
most of which recognize their essentiality for innovation, product
development, and discovery. The report further recommended that
the president issue an executive order to executive departments
and agencies emphasizing a proactive approach to information
The set of recommendations also involved strengthening the
National Technical Information Service (NTIS) and providing funding
for its public information dissemination activities. As an independent
agency, NCLIS could bring government agencies together to discuss
common concerns and provide a framework for collaboration in
a nonthreatening atmosphere. Taxpayers do not benefit from the
government's operation of competing and parallel information
dissemination programs. The environment for government information
at all levels needs to change from secrecy and competition to
collaboration and sharing.
As Peter Drucker has pointed out many times, there is a tendency
to confuse information technology (IT) with information. Many
people in and out of government believe that buying computers
will solve information problems. They view technology as an end
in itself rather than as a tool to gather, store, analyze, disseminate,
and preserve substantive content. Many government agencies have
chief information officers, whose jobs relate to technology,
not content or information dissemination. Information technology
alone does not deal with content, context, or understanding.
IT deals with tools, pipes, hardware, software, networks, and
operating systems. Arno Penzias, Nobel prize winner, observed: "Human
intelligence almost always thrives on context, while computers
work on abstract numbers alone."8
Recommendations incorporated into a draft of the Public Information
Resources Reform Act of 2001 state that government information
is an economic resource. Maximum availability and "easy access
contribute to productive development in all sectors of the economy." The
nation needs a modernized public information program that utilizes
technology to maximize availability, ease access, and archive
and preserve knowledge and information in perpetuity. The current
system does not satisfy these needs and continues to be duplicative,
inconsistent, and inefficient in production, dissemination, as
well as archiving and preservation. The proposed legislation
also specified that all waivers for agency printing and printing
procurement authorized by the Joint Committee on Printing be
repealed. Agencies would need to apply to their branch information
offices for waivers in the future. This provision is timely in
view of the efforts of the OMB to transfer printing procurement
away from the Government Printing Office (GPO) to individual
agencies. While OMB claims significant cost savings, it is difficult
to see how many agencies struggling with duplicating the GPO's
expertise and staff will realize savings. [See "NewsBreak: Is
GPO Endangered?," http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb020805f-1.htm, "NewsBreak:
The Tug of War Continues for GPO," http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb021209-2.htm,
and "Cost Cutting or Access Control: OMB Dismantling GPO, Searcher,
October 2002, pp. 65-7.]
Between 1973 and 2000, NCLIS published at least 10 reports
dealing with public libraries. These reports dealt with funding,
providing Internet access to the public, and establishing community
information and referral services. Other activities include statistics,
the sister libraries program, a conference on information literacy
to be held in Prague in 2003, and two White House Conferences.
NCLIS commissioners and staff have testified numerous times before
Congressional Committees and have worked closely with library
and information professional associations. NCLIS' educational
role is critical. Members of Congress and the public need to
be informed about the government's information and publishing
programs. They need to know that these program return the investment
many times over in making a difference and providing useful information.
The future of NCLIS is in doubt. Funding is far from certain.
NCLIS suffers from lack of visibility. With the public unaware
of its existence, much less its achievements, there are no strong
special interest groups outside the library field to lobby for
funding or implementation of NLCIS recommendations. The lack
of a constituency also results in the lack of a strong lobby
group, which is required to educate the public on information,
policy, and information and knowledge research issues. Congress
often seems unaware of the return on investment resulting from
information programs. The members of Congress are in desperate
need of education on how freely available information makes a
positive difference to the economy, research, scholarship, learning,
product development, innovation, citizenship, and education of
consumers. The utility of information extends value to every
NCLIS could serve as a catalyst for the development of new
funding sources and programs for public libraries. In recent
years, more public libraries have turned to private sources of
funding. Public librarians and public funding agencies probably
would welcome information about models and techniques for fund
raising and the development of value-added services. New public
library buildings are being built and celebrated in urban areas.
Again, NCLIS could become a catalyst in stimulating municipalities,
counties, and towns to build public libraries to serve many needs
in the community.
Basic and applied research is needed to optimize resources
and increase the effectiveness of libraries, consortia, publishers,
vendors, aggregators, and others in the information industry.
Private industry alone cannot fulfill the requirements for publicly
available research on information users, usage, and value. The
industry needs to know how information is used in various fields
and how information changes affect business, research, and scholarship.
The industry needs to know how people access, find, evaluate,
and use information. There is a great need for an inventory on
requirements for information competency training for information
professionals, students, and the public.
Other issues needing study are the feasibility and development
of last-copy repositories for books and periodicals, as well
as finding and funding trusted third parties to archive and preserve
e-books, e-journals, and all digital materials. These projects
should be carried out with public/private partnerships involving
government at all levels, libraries, both public and private,
publishers, aggregators, abstracting and indexing services, and
The knowledge and information fields need a policy-level group
to advise the Congress, the president, and the public on critical
library and information issues. The fields need a research organization
as recommended by the Knight Commission in 1969. Why not NLCIS?
NCLIS is charged with advising the Congress and the president.
It is charged to conduct research. Why not provide funding to
NLCIS so that it can fulfill its mission?
In an interview in October 2002, Robert Willard, executive
director of NCLIS, indicated his desire to update the Knight
Commission study to "shine lights" on the current and future
roles of libraries, the application of technology, innovative
services, and information provision. As Mr. Willard points out,
the NCLIS budget request of $2.8 million is less than 1 penny
per capita. So why not?
Suggestions for a Reborn NLCIS
If NCLIS succeeds in acquiring funding support for
FY2004 and beyond, the Commission could increase its
visibility by undertaking an educational campaign aimed
at educating the administration, Congress, and the public
about the value of information for the economy, scholarship,
research, learning, product development, and citizenship.
This campaign could involve aggressive publicity efforts:
speeches to groups outside the library field, articles
in the popular press, and sponsoring conferences with
other government agencies or private groups dealing with
information and knowledge.
Other activities that would make a difference include
helping public libraries develop new funding sources.
As municipal and county budgets shrink, public libraries
are turning to private sources for funding. NCLIS could
serve as a catalyst in making people aware of the value
of public libraries and their contributions to their
NCLIS can play an important role by funding or helping
to fund basic and applied research aimed at increasing
the effectiveness of libraries, consortia, vendors, publishers,
aggregators, and others in the information industry.
All would benefit from research on how the use of information
makes a difference to all and the return on investment
from information gathering and dissemination.
Other areas that would benefit from study include the
feasibility and development of last-copy repositories
for books, periodicals, and technical reports, as well
as finding and funding trusted third parties to archive
and preserve e-books, e-journals, and all digital materials.
All such projects could use public/private partnerships,
government agencies from all levels, libraries, and others.
NCLIS should take a leadership role in the information
field to benefit all players, especially taxpayers.
1 Knight, Douglas N. and Nourse,
E. Shepley, Libraries At Large: Tradition, Innovation, and
the National Interest, New York, R. R. Bowker, 1969.
3 Ibid., p. 496
4 U. S. National Commission
on Libraries and Information Science, "1999-2000 Annual Report," Washington,
5 Fry, Bernard M., Government
Publications: Their Role in the National Program for Library
and Information Services, Washington, D.C., National Commission
on Libraries and Information Services, December, 1978.
6 Ibid., p. 1.
7 Comprehensive Assessment
of Public Information Dissemination, Washington, D.C.,
National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, January
8 Penzias, Arno, Ideas and
Information, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1989,
Mariam A. Drake's email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.