CDL and NSDL brings UC and CSU Science Librarians Together for Portal
By Maria Kochis, Engineering Librarian, Reference Department

On Wednesday, April 14th, I attended a focus group sponsored by the California Digital Library. The CDL, established in 1997 as a UC library (www.cdlib.org), received a grant from the National Science Digital Library to build a web portal for math and science content. Science librarians were solicited from the University of California, the CSU and private colleges to inform the CDL about user habits and expectations in their own libraries.

The first focus group took place at the offices of the CDL, located on the 4th floor of the Oakland Scientific Facility (a high-security building, also housing the Lawrence Berkeley lab). Nine librarians and three facilitators were present.

The meeting began with a synopsis of the NSDL, which is currently funded by the National Science Foundation. According to the facilitators, the NSDL came into being conceptually around 1998 after an NSF report demonstrated that the overall science curriculum in the U.S. did not compare well with the science curriculum of other countries. They foresaw another Sputnik crisis in the making and the NSDL was seen as a possible solution to this crisis.

The NSDL, according to it own homepage (www.nsdl.org/about), “is a digital library of exemplary resource collections and services, organized in support of science education at all levels.” Inclusion of a collection into the NSDL is based on broad criteria:
scientific relevance and a collection’s integrity. Integrity refers to reliability in terms of service. In other words, the NSDL is an aggregate collection of smaller focused digital collections (most of them, if not all, are free collections, accessible to the public) that pertain to any aspect of science and technology.

The NSDL is already up and running. Currently, it contains 304 separate collections, organized in two ways: alphabetically and textually, visually and thematically. The difference between the current model of the NSDL and the web portal that the CDL has been entrusted to create appears to be size, scope and funding. According to the facilitators, the web portal that would subsume the NSDL would encompass all publicly accessible digital collections relating to science and technology for all age groups, from primary school to graduate school. It would also include free scholarly journals and possibly some subscription databases as well. Sound a bit unrealistic? The librarians there thought so, too.

After a brief discussion of the goals and objectives of the NSDL, the facilitators whisked out the subject of funding and a dark note entered the conversation. Apparently, the NSDL is only guaranteed funding for a few more years by the NSF. Then, it is expected that government funding will be pulled. The general assumption is that, in the future, the NSDL will be commercially supported by diverse funding streams. Along with brainstorming about the framework and content of the new portal, the librarians present were asked to consider, if the NSDL was turned into a commercial resource, what the potential value of that resource would be to their users and how much they would consider paying.

Two aspects of this project strike a discordant note in me. One is the size of the beast, so inherently impractical. The other comes from a few floating assumptions: that providing a centralized location for free digital scientific collections will be a major linchpin in solving our country’s curricular crisis; that this digital library, initiated through government funding, is already targeted for “commercialization”. The disturbing part of this last assumption is that the NSDL is currently comprised of primarily free, publicly accessible collections. A burning question in my mind is what impact the commercialization of the NSDL would have on these independent collections (not to mention free scholarly journals), in terms of content, pricing and accessibility.

As it stands now, the NSDL is worth checking out. Some of the librarian participants in the focus group pointed out collections they used regularly and thought valuable and I was glad to hear their insights and editorial comments. Rather than add the NSDL to our Databases page, I recommend that we cull this digital library for collections that are relevant to our university’s curriculum and research needs and add these collections to our subject specific web guides.