Reflections on NSDL by Frank Wattenberg
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The picture below is one that I’ve used in virtually every essay or presentation I’ve given about NSDL. As you can see, this essay is no exception.
This picture captures three things about our initial vision of NSDL – our aspirations, truly astronomical in scope, and our two goals – making a substantive improvement in the quality of learning in the STEM disciplines and a substantive difference in the extent to which the very best learning reaches all students. The two goals together are what give the vision its character – there are many pockets of very high quality STEM learning and the reach of STEM learning is huge but sadly the reach of the very best STEM learning has been too limited.
“Facility” and “Library”
It is no secret that many of us are disappointed in the results of a project that at its beginning was so promising and had such huge potential. The shortcomings of NSDL can, for the most part, be traced to two related, foreseeable and, indeed, foreseen problems.
- When I was at NSF we had to avoid the use of the word “facility” and we had to work within NSF’s usual grant solicitation mode. Anything else would have lead in the best case to delays of ten or more years. But, NSDL, is very much a facility for research and education and building it through the usual grant solicitation mode without acknowledging that reality is like building a house through many individual grants – you might wind up with 5 beautiful kitchens but no bathrooms. And, that is exactly what happened. Moreover, grantsmanship is essentially competitive and one result was friction among some of NSDLs most enthusiastic and creative supporters.
- NSDL has never had a good sustainability plan. This stems, in part, from our use of the word “library.” The word has many wonderful connotations. Think of how many biographies begin with an ode to the lion statues on the steps of the New York City Public Library; think of the role libraries and librarians play in defending our rights to write and read the most controversial views on the most controversial topics; and think of the way that card catalogs and librarians have helped us find and choose among the millions of available volumes. Ultimately, however, the word “library” is misleading in two very important ways.
- Many people believe that the word “library” is somehow related to the word “free” but libraries are expensive. When NSDL was first getting started I remember doing a quick calculation, dividing the budget of the Arlington Virginia Public Library by the population of Arlington. I don’t remember the result but through the magic of Google and the Internet I just found the FY 2007 budget of the city-funded Arlington, Texas public library system ($6,703,585) and the 2006 population of Arlington (364,300). A quick division yields $18.40. Post-secondary enrollment in the United States is roughly 17,500,000, so a comparable budget might be on the order of $300,000,000. More significantly, the production of most of the books found in libraries is supported by bookstore sales. This is significant for two reasons – first, the best content in NSDL is likely to be purely digital and not supported by a separate market – and, second, content in NSDL could replace some textbooks. In short, NSDL merits very substantial funding, well beyond current levels.
- The care and feeding of the contents of digital libraries are closer to the care and feeding of the animals found in zoos than to that of the books found in traditional libraries. This is especially true for the highly interactive contents that are most likely to have a real impact on the twin goals of quality and reach – for example, few of us are able to read floppy disks and many of us spend inordinate amounts of time rewriting old programs in new languages. For this reason, the name National Digital Science Zoo would have been better than National Digital Science Library.