THE PUBLIC FLAP over a Commerce Department plan to close its information clearinghouse, the National Technical Information Service, encapsulates the issues that crop up when a new technology supersedes an old one. The information service, chartered in 1930, offers citizens a place to buy government reports on scientific and technical topics. By law it must be self-supporting, a requirement that has become impossible to meet as the government documents it sells become available for free on the Web. But the prospect of its disappearance sows alarm all the same, mostly among academics and librarians who wonder what will replace it as a central reference point and as a connection to "depository libraries" that order significant documents.
Some see the change as a chance to create a more rational system than the current awkward mix of documents on paper, the Web and a variety of incompatible formats. One problem that needs fixing is that of so-called "fugitive documents" that are posted on Web sites and then taken down, or published on paper but then mislaid. Another pressing need is to safeguard the citizen access now supposedly guaranteed by the system of depository libraries, by which core documents such as the Congressional Record are sent on paper to a network of libraries in the 50 states.
For the vast series of less fundamental documents and reports that are, after all, generated by taxpayer money, any new distribution system could be a considerable improvement on the current potpourri. In one glaring irony, the recent Commerce Department report warning of a "digital divide" -- a growing inequality between the better-off who have Internet access and those outside the system -- was available online for free, while those presumably less-wealthy souls who couldn't read it on the Net would have had to pay $27 for a paper copy.
Before it can close the technology service, the department must submit a proposal to Congress on how and to whom it would hand off these important functions. A reasonable plan ought to take into account the many overlapping tasks in this regard performed by the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Government Printing Office and others. A good plan could serve as model for the many other entities that must sooner or later navigate this technological switch.