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Vol. 11 No. 2 — February 2003
National Commission on Libraries and Information Science: Why Not?
By Miriam A. Drake Professor Emerita, Library, Georgia Institute of Technology

On 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. NCLIS 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 example, 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 dissemination.

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 people.

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 remain.

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 sector relationships.

Government Information

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 dissemination.

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 costs.

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 dissemination.

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?,", "NewsBreak: The Tug of War Continues for GPO,", and "Cost Cutting or Access Control: OMB Dismantling GPO, Searcher, October 2002, pp. 65-7.]

Other Activities

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 citizen.

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 others.

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 communities.

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.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., p. 496

4 U. S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, "1999-2000 Annual Report," Washington, DC, 2001.

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 2001.

8 Penzias, Arno, Ideas and Information, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1989, p. 49.

Mariam A. Drake's email address is:
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