When we depend on pointing instead of collecting
NASA took its Technical Report Server (http://ntrs.nasa.gov/) offline this week, saying :
The NASA technical reports server will be unavailable for public access while the agency conducts a review of the site’s content to ensure that it does not contain technical information that is subject to U.S. export control laws and regulations and that the appropriate reviews were performed. The site will return to service when the review is complete. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.
As Steven Aftergood reported at Secrecy News [emphasis added]:
In other words, all NASA technical documents, no matter how voluminous and valuable they are, should cease to be publicly available in order to prevent the continued disclosure of any restricted documents, no matter how limited or insignificant they may be.
“There is a HUGE amount of material on NTRS,” said space policy analyst Dwayne Day. “If NASA is forced to review it all, it will never go back online.”
— “NASA Technical Reports Database Goes Dark” by Steven Aftergood (March 21st, 2013).
Michael L. Nelson of the Department of Computer Science at Old Dominion University investigated the availability of some of the NASA reports at other archives and reports his findings on his blog:
- NTRS, Web Archives, and Why We Should Build Collections, by Michael L. Nelson, Web Science and Digital Libraries (March 23, 2013).
Nelson found that some reports are available at http://naca.central.cranfield.ac.uk/ which is an archive of some NASA information that Nelson helped establish after NASA websites were taken down after September 11, 2001. He notes that the removal of information from NASA servers at that time “made it clear to me that NASA information was too important to be left on *.nasa.gov computers.” He found more data at the Internet Archive’s “NASA Technical Documents” collection: http://archive.org/details/nasa_techdocs and in Mark Phillips NACA collection at http://digital.library.unt.edu/explore/collections/NACA/ .
Nelson draws some conclusions from all this [emphasis added]:
…it is events like this that demonstrate the value of copying by-value and not just by-reference.
In other words, pointing to web sites is much less valuable and much more fragile than acquiring copies of digital information and building digital collections that you control. The OAIS reference model for long term preservation makes this a requirement, saying that an organization that intends to provide information to its user community for the long-term, must “Obtain sufficient control of the information provided to the level needed to ensure Long-Term Preservation.” Pointing to a web page or PDF at nasa.gov is not obtaining any control.
He also makes a distinction between those things that are saved because of their popularity and things that will not be saved unless special care is taken to preserve them:
I’m not concerned about popular culture artifacts disappearing (e.g., see our TPDL 2011 paper about music redundancy in YouTube), but it is not clear that long tail content like NASA reports will enjoy that same level of uncoordinated refreshing and migration. The moral of the story: make copies of the content…
And he notes the importance of multiple copies:
…a 1994 NASA TM of mine is on at least six different hosts, none of which are *.nasa.gov.
…If NTRS was a LOCKSS participant then access would be uninterrupted…
And Aftergood concludes [emphasis added]:
The upshot is that the government is not an altogether reliable repository of official records. Members of the public who depend on access to such records should endeavor to make and preserve their own copies whenever possible.
Here at FGI, we have repeatedly argued that identifying important information that warrants explicit preservation is the age-old role of libraries in society and that it still is (or should be) the key value of libraries in the digital age. Many government agencies, including NASA and the Government Printing Office have good intentions and good programs for preservation and access, but those agencies cannot guarantee that they will always provide preservation and access. In the case of the NTRS web site, Aftergood and others speculate that the take down was a response to a demand by a single Congressman who said in a press conference on March 18 [emphasis added]:
NASA should immediately take down all publicly available technical data sources until all documents that have not been subjected to export control review have received such a review and all controlled documents are removed from the system.
The NTRS web site was taken offline on March 19.
Government agencies are subject to political activities like this and budgetary limitations. Very bad things can happen which, in cases like this can remove from access, “all NASA technical documents, no matter how voluminous and valuable they are” in a single moment.
Libraries should still be selecting, acquiring, organizing, and preserving information for their user-communities, and providing access to and services for those collections. Libraries do no one a long-term service by simply pointing to resources over which they have no control and which someone else can simply make unavailable literally at the flick of a switch.
FDLP libraries should demand digital deposit from GPO and should actively select and acquire that digital public government information that is of value to their user communities that GPO cannot deposit because it is outside the scope of Title 44.