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 . 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 . 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.”