Implementation and Innovation in the NSDL by William Arms

September 18, 2008 at 2:07 pm 2 comments

Download PDF: Implementation and Innovation in the NSDL by William Arms

Alternative views of the NSDL

This essay is a personal reflection on how early decisions shaped the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) and how the program has evolved over the past decade. It draws heavily on observations from the planning studies in 1997 and 1998, and my experience as principal investigator of the Cornell University’s part of the Core Integration team until 2005. The thoughts expressed here are purely my own.

The underlying theme of this essay is that the NSDL program has two missions: implementation and innovation. Confusion between these two missions goes back to the beginning of the program. The original concept was to implement a digital library for science education. But the NSF’s principal goal is to support research and the NSDL program also gives grants for innovation in digital libraries and science education.

The first public discussion of a library for science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education (SMETE, as it was originally called) was a National Research Council workshop in August 1997 [1]. This workshop was only partially successful for a reason that has challenged the NSDL throughout its life. Some members of the workshop were genuinely wanted to build a library for scientific education, but the majority were researchers. They welcomed the NSF’s interest in this area because it might provide funding for their personal research. The participants gave insufficient attention to the tough implementation questions. Would a digital library really improve the quality of scientific education? Is this a good way to spend the taxpayers’ money?

The NSF tried again with a workshop in July 1998, which I chaired [2]. The report of the workshop concentrated on the narrow objective of how to build a digital library that would have an impact on science education. While urging that there should be an associated research program, the report emphasized that, “The SMETE Library provides a service; it is not a research project.” It envisioned a central organization that would coordinate a federation of major partners. The importance of these partners was expressed in a sentence that proved prophetic, “The site to which the NSF lends its name and towards which it directs its primary marketing will be considered the central site, but it is unlikely to be the biggest or most heavily used.”

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Entry filed under: NSDL Core Integration. Tags: , , .

Welcome to NSDL Reflections! Reflections on NSDL by Frank Wattenberg

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Flora McMartin  |  March 18, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Bill writes that NSDL has been faced with two challenges: supporting education at all levels and mixing the missions of innovation and implementation. He adds that the “aim was to implement a digital library, but the funding program was more suitable for a broad program of research and development.”
    Given the broad and mixed mission, does NSDL need to focus its resources in particular areas to ensure longer term sustainability? What would those areas of focus be, and can digital library services be created that provide value to some set of users or funders?

  • […] explaining its 1996-1997 roots in NSF-funded planning studies (see NSDL Reflections Weblog, “Implementations and Innovation in the NSDL” by William Arms). Dr. Linda Slakey, NSF Division of Undergraduate Education Division Director […]


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Welcome to NSDL Reflections!

We are collecting the "reflections" on the collaborative development of the National Science Digital Library (NSDL). This site is a place for NSDL participants to “tell the story” of how they think NSDL was formed, grew and is continuing to grow. And for the community to discuss and learn from these reflections.

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