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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:

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.

— http://spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=40365

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.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


  1. The NASA response to Congressional criticism may have been knee-jerk, but be assured violations of export-controls are serious business.

    The export and release of technical data to foreign nationals may require approval or license from the Department of State for items controlled by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), or the Department of Commerce for items controlled by the Export Administration Regulations (EAR). Under 22 U.S.C. 2778 the penalty for unlawful export of items or information controlled under the ITAR is up to 2 years imprisonment, or a fine of $100,000, or both. Under 50 U.S.C., Appendix 2410, the penalty for unlawful export of items or information controlled under the EAR is a fine of up to $1,000,000, or five times the value of the exports, whichever is greater; or for an individual, imprisonment of up to 10 years, or a fine of up to $250,000, or both.

    See this NASA Briefing about U.S. Export Control Laws and Regulations
    http://oiir.hq.nasa.gov/nasaecp/webbrfg.pdf from the NASA Export Control Program website http://oiir.hq.nasa.gov/nasaecp/

    Also see Export.gov http://export.gov/ecr/index.asp and the White House, Office of the Press Secretary, March 08, 2013 Fact Sheet: Implementation of Export Control Reform http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/03/08/fact-sheet-implementation-export-control-reform

    If agency components and authors follow internal procedures for pre-publication review and clearance, technical data subject to export control would be flagged and modified or withheld from public release. Here are some examples of agency review policies.
    • USDA, Prepublication Review, http://www.dm.usda.gov/ocpm/Security%20Guide/S4self/Prepub.htm
    • Army, Security Review (pre-publication review) http://www.dami.army.pentagon.mil/site/InfoSec/TP-SecRev.aspx

    Once a document has been publicly released, it’s like trying to get the genie back in the bottle. Although the sponsoring agency may no longer provide it to the public, it’s not gone, just withdrawn. Other sources exist and the document lives on.

    • Thanks for filling in these details, Bonnie.

      I want to make it clear, however, that I wasn’t criticizing or critiquing export control policy.

      The fact that there are sometimes good reasons (even when we discount or avoid political overkill or agency knee-jerk reactions) for agencies to retract, redact, excise or withdraw information is exactly the point! This particular case of NTRS (because it withdrew so much information that everyone agrees should be available) just serves to highlight and emphasize the deeper problem that libraries cannot rely on “pointing.”

      There are — and always will be — lots of reasons for government agencies to withdraw information from public access or stop preserving it. That means that FDLP libraries cannot and should not assume that any particular bit of information will be available tomorrow just because it is available today. Anyone can point to a web site or document, but we have a special name for those that select, acquire, organize, and preserve information and provide access to and services for that information: We call them Libraries.

  2. While NASA may be following legal guidance in taking down its technical reports server, the agency is undermining users’ ability to identify technical publications of interest. During the vetting process, why can’t NASA retain the report server’s index but block access to unvetted reports?

    This denial of access has a parallel. When the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) clearinghouse discovered that personal information was included in some of its documents, it blocked access to all pending review and redaction of the personal information. After denying access to all documents for a short period, ERIC administrators established a process for priority vetting of requested documents. NASA’s current stance suggests a lack of contingency planning and no concern for addressing legitimate users’ information needs. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that a process should be established to restore access to most of these unclassified materials.

  3. I’m glad to see 26,000+ NASA reports in the Internet Archive. As Michael Nelson notes, “the pdfs are out there and shutting down ntrs.nasa.gov won’t bring them back.” But having them scattered across the ‘net *does* obfuscate access.

    I’ve also harvested the NACA site as part of our Fugitive US Documents Archive-it collection. If you know of other govt agencies/archives that are at risk, please let me know (freegovinfo AT gmail DOT com). Thanks!

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