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Conference Report


D-Lib Magazine
December 2006

Volume 12 Number 12

ISSN 1082-9873

Snapshots of the National Science Digital Library Annual Meeting

October 18 - 20, 2006, Washington, DC


Brad Edmondson

Carol Minton Morris
Cornell University

Red Line


NSDL Annual Meeting 2006

The 2006 meeting of the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) officially convened on October 19 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) building in Washington, DC. A related poster session was held October 18 (please see Appendix for more information about the poster session).

The NSDL annual meeting location was just one block away from the Metro Center subway stop and four blocks from the Mall, which made it easy to find a good restaurant or take an interesting walk – for example, Ford's Theater was just around the corner. Nearly 200 people were on hand for the opening session in AAAS's beautifully designed auditorium.

Opening Session: Gift to the Nation

"NSDL is about the dream of education shared by all of us in this room," said Kaye Howe, Executive Director of the NSDL Core Integration project in her opening remarks. "It pulls together the tools we all create so that someone teaching the third grade in North Dakota can do a good job for his students. And this year, we are at a point of convergence."

Howe's message was celebratory; she said that the road NSDL has followed since it launched in 2000 has really been a path to glory. By way of elaboration she quoted the third stanza of Wallace Stevens' "Poems of Our Climate" where the poet writes:

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
"All of us who are involved in NSDL know that it is coming together," she said. "Our next stage will be a gift to the nation. It is a gift that you all have given."

Keynote Speaker: Dr. Daniel Atkins

Dr. Atkins is the head of the National Science Foundation's new Office of Cyberinfrastructure. The office is promoting "science gateways" such as Linked Environments for Atmospheric Discovery (LEAD), a web portal that gives high school students, undergraduates, and the public direct access to a network of the world's fastest computers. It takes a very large, very fast computer to crunch all the variables that make an accurate forecast of a hurricane's path, for example. Teragrid, the computer network behind LEAD, has more than 102 teraflops of computing capability and more than 15 petabytes (quadrillions of bytes) of online and archival data storage. Its headquarters at the University of Chicago provides rapid access and retrieval over high-performance networks linking computers on nine campuses. One of LEAD's main goals is to improve storm forecasting; another is to improve the public's understanding of storms.

Photograph of Daniel Atkins

Dr. Daniel Atkins, Director, the National Science Foundation Office of Cyberinfrastructure.
Photograph credit: University of Michigan.

The vision of Atkins's office is to promote four broad outcomes, which he calls a "vision framework." These are high performance computing; data, data analysis and visualization; virtual organizations; and learning and workforce development. Organizations already exist to promote these things, of course, but Atkins' office is uniquely positioned to facilitate the "multi-discipline, multi-investigator, and multi-institution approach that is driving the frontier of science," he says. LEAD and other Science Gateways are research fronts that rely on massive amounts of data that must be shared and stored. They also lower the barrier for entry into these disciplines. Atkins says his office's mission includes finding ways to train the people who will run the Gateways and do the research.

Atkins uses an ancient scientific analogy to describe the activities on which his office must focus. A Borromean Ring is a structure of three circles that are inseparable; remove one and the other two will fall apart. The three activities are "provisioning," or the creation, deployment, and operation of advanced cyberinfrastructure (CI) networks; research and development to enhance the social and technical effectiveness of future CI environments; and sponsoring "transformative applications" that will enhance discovery and learning.

Several people in the audience nodded when Atkins said the words "transformative application," because that is what NSDL strives to become. Atkins said that in his opinion, NSDL is also like a Borromean Ring. One if its accomplishments is creating "a diverse and complimentary community linking people in work who have often not physically met." He also said that NSDL has made important technical contributions to the field of digital libraries and is "broadening the notion of library content."

Atkins identified several trends his office is watching closely. One is the Open Education/Learning Resources movement. Another is the reuse, remixing, and "mashup" of existing digital resources. The office is keenly interested in efforts to improve the integration of learning and discovery based on cyberinfrastructure platforms. These efforts can come from just about anywhere – and as an example, Atkins also cited, a 3-D virtual world that is entirely built and owned by its residents. Three-year-old SecondLife is already "inhabited" by more than a million participants. It is increasingly used as an online location for communication, commerce and education.

"People are making money in the real world by creating and selling virtual pieces of real estate on These lots have great views of the virtual sea," said Atkins. "So one particularly clever resident bought a piece of imaginary land right along the shore that was very narrow and infinitely long, and erected mile-high billboards on it. He then sold the land to the people with the sea views." Sites like these are examples of enterprising and creative directions for the Web, he said.

Panel Discussion: "Meeting Web Kids on Their Own Turf"

Social media is turning education upside down. "Kids are coming to the Columbia University library now mostly to use the coffee bar," says Kate Wittenberg, Director of Columbia's Electronic Publishing Initiative (EPIC). "This upsets librarians. Yet the Columbia Library page on Facebook has over 1,000 friends. They are coming to the library in new ways."

Photographe taken during the Kids' panel session

(l-r) Kate Wittenberg, Julie Evans, Karon Weber, Eric Rosenbaum, and Jennifer Groff of the NSDL "Webkids" panel.
Photograph by Carol Minton Morris.

Wittenberg, who is also a Principal Investigator (PI) for NSDL Core Integration at Columbia, has been urging academic publishers and librarians to expand into "social media," which is a general term used to describe the places students visit to talk and interact on-line. The vast and rapidly expanding world of text messages, instant messages, e-mail, multiplayer games, Facebook, MySpace and others is too important for academics to ignore, she says. At the Thursday morning discussion Wittenberg moderated, "Meeting Web Kids On Their Own Turf," four experts shared their thoughts about how the NSDL community might plug in.

"Students no longer believe that the teacher is the font of all knowledge and students are the vessels to be filled," said Julie Evans, the CEO of NetDay/Project Tomorrow. Evans' organization conducts large national surveys with K-12 students and teachers to hear and report on emerging ideas about educational technology. Here are some highlights from those surveys:

  • The three most popular online applications for students are games, music, and communications.
  • Sixth grade is the point when more than half of girls and boys report having weekly access to e-mail and instant messaging.
  • Middle school students are more sophisticated users of social media than high school students are.
  • Students say that instant messaging is their preferred means of communication with peers. They say that e-mail is a "storage medium."
  • Cell phones and text messaging are even more popular with students than are computer-based instant message programs.
  • The most technically advanced students are the least likely to spend time updating a MySpace page. MySpace is for beginners.

Evans made several conclusions. First, grown-ups who send e-mail to students are signaling that they are not within the student's circle of friends. Second, students view online research as more accurate, efficient, and fun than listening to teachers. They feel they can't rely on school libraries because books are likely to be outdated. "Fifth and sixth graders told us they share web pages with each other at lunchtime," said Evans. "They don't have access to computers, so they write the URLs on their lunch bags."

Students and teachers view social media differently, says Evans, and this difference reduces students' access to information during school hours. When asked to name the biggest barrier to online communication in school, teachers said they needed faster Internet connections. Students said there are too many rules restricting access. The bottom line, said Evans, is that students are native dwellers in the digital landscape. While students grew up online, their teachers have to learn new habits. This means that many students are ahead of their teachers. They are shaping the digital environment outside of school while teachers struggle to learn and argue over the rules.

"I see a huge up tick in rules and regulations on use of the Internet at school, and it worries me," said Evans. "Someone needs to show how these rules are handcuffing the technology. I was in an affluent high school that had a great laptop program, with ninth graders bringing their laptops from home and logging into a wireless network. But the network code changed daily and teachers had to waste enormous amounts of time putting the code into the computer every day. They were forced to do this because the principal wanted to keep kids from accessing the code outside of school. Other schools have filters that cut out all commercial .com sites.

"As a result of these rules, the relevance of the school as a learning environment is fading away. There are pockets of great things happening, but in most schools the power of this new technology is being squashed by the principal's fear of the unknown."

The second panelist explained how her company is helping social media expand. Karon Weber recently joined the Yahoo!' Youth and Education Research Group after two decades of developing digital animation software. She said that social media operates at the intersection of people, media, and technology.

Yahoo! runs three of the biggest social media projects on the web. Their site allows users to store the addresses of favorite websites online. This allows users to access these bookmarks from any computer, add new bookmarks from anywhere, and share favorites with others. Since everything on is someone's favorite, the site also serves as a user-rated web crawler. The second site, Flickr, allows users to share photos on a public or a private website. It has five million registered users, and eight out of ten photos are public and searchable. Weber did a search on the day of the panel and found that Flickr offered 47,000 free photos of Giant Pandas. Many of the photos are tagged with information such as the latitude and longitude where they were taken, so a teacher who uses a panda photo from Flickr can show where the photo was taken on a map.

The most social of the projects is Yahoo! Answers, which allows users to ask and answer any question. People who answer questions are ranked with points as if they were sellers on Ebay, with a similar feedback system. This means that people who give good answers gain status and become popular on the site. Yahoo! Answers has dealt with 65 million questions so far, and each question hatches a story. For example, the question, "Are there trips to see Giant Pandas?" yielded the answer, "I am in Chengdu now and will check out conditions at the zoo today and at the base camp research center tomorrow." Learners on these sites create and share content as they are consuming it, said Weber.

Handheld technologies are emerging as powerful educational tools for six reasons, said the third and fourth panelists, Jennifer S. Groff, Program Manager, and Eric Rosenbaum, Research Manager, from The Teacher Education Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Game Boy game consoles, cell phones, play stations, Tamagachi toys, Palm Pilots, and pocket PC devices work for education because they are portable, ubiquitous, have connectivity, offer social interaction, are content-sensitive, and can be customized for the individual user.

Groff and Rosenbaum work with the MIT Education Arcade, which develops educational games. A game called "Big Fish, Little Fish" teaches ecology: you can either take on the role of a big fish searching for food, or a school of small fish working together for protection. Another game, "Sugar and Spice," teaches the concepts of microeconomics. And a third game uses pocket PCs linked to a server to teach ecology and evolution, based on the journals Charles Darwin kept on the behavior of finches. Users can breed the birds, feed on pollen, and otherwise interact with the virtual environment. The game goes constantly, so that students can manage their birds and flowers outside of class and analyze the data to present to their teachers.

Rosenbaum described "augmented reality games" that connect a pocket PC to a Global Positioning System (GPS) to put a virtual overlay on a physical space. "Environmental Detectives" presents gamers with a satellite map of the MIT Campus with dots highlighted. A toxic waste spill has put chemicals in the groundwater. Students walk around the campus with their Pocket PC devices and conduct virtual interviews with characters who are professors and construction managers to find clues. They can also drill a virtual well to get the components of the spill. Students share their data and make inferences to ultimately write a remediation plan. Another game, "Outbreak@MIT," simulates a disease outbreak. Students are connected to a network, so if one of them should pick up the "vaccine," it will disappear from the other players' screens. Students get "sick" and collaborate as they try to stop the outbreak.

Julie Evans pointed out that teachers will not use games in the classroom unless the games include ways to measure learning outcomes. The inquiry-based learning that takes place in computer games is harder to measure, but it is compelling to children. Groff said that children who are used to pursuing answers through games are apt to disengage from the old lecture-based learning models. "When I taught school, I dealt with a girl whose parents fought to get her into an inquiry-based learning model," she said. "I think we're going to see more of that."

True to its subject, the NSDL Web kids panel bred a lively discussion that continues on NSDL's Expert Voices blog page at: ( Please add your comments.

Panel Discussion: ComPADRE panel

High school physics and math teachers aren't an endangered species yet, but they are threatened. About two-thirds of chemistry and physics teachers in U.S. high schools do not have a major or a certificate in their subjects. Only half of math teachers in grades 5 through 12 do. Two physics communities have joined to attack the problem with new strategies for sharing information, and they described their efforts at NSDL's annual meeting.

The Physics Teacher Education Coalition ( supports the professional development of physics and physical sciences teachers. This summer, the PTEC website was re-designed to link to the collections of comPADRE, the NSDL Pathways partner for physics and astronomy education. The new site also includes a database of opportunities for professional development. "The professional societies are taking up the slack," said Ted Hodapp, director of education and outreach for the American Physical Society, one of the funders. Physics teachers often drop out because they feel isolated, said Hodapp. The PTEC/ComPADRE initiative combats this with geographic tools, including links to professional development workshops around the country and links to regionally available grants.

Faculty Use of Digital Materials: Survey Design and Preliminary Results

You might think that college and University faculty who have the scholarly advantage of access to excellent research libraries would use digital collections and services provided by their institutions to prepare lectures rather than just going to Google, right? But that isn't always true, reports Alan Wolf, University of Wisconsin, and Joshua Morrill, Morrill Solutions Research. They presented an interim report on a nationwide survey they are conducting to learn more about how digital collections align with the practices of college level instructors as they prepare for teaching.

They conducted a study in 2005-2006 with instructors in 12 focus groups in 8 locations at a variety of types of institutions of higher education to find out how they used digital collections as well as which characteristics of digital collections they found to be helpful. The themes that emerged along with specific responses formed the basis for design of the national survey.

Early observations:

  • Personal definitions of what a digital library is vary widely from "a web page with links" to "a collection of items with metadata and associated services."
  • There is general feeling that "too much information" is available.
  • Instructors are concerned about copyright on digital materials.
  • Instructors need specific information and are discriminating about their selections.
  • Preservation is a concern. Will a resource be available next time it is requested?

Based on study results and early analysis there appears to be a desire for low complexity, high granularity digital collections coupled with a need for "simple pictures" among college and university faculty. A full report on the survey will be released in 2007.

Closing Panel Discussion: Sustainability

"Digital media is now the medium for communication into the millennia," said Paul Berkman, Chair of the NSDL Sustainability Committee. Berkman's group has spent several years exploring strategies that could sustain NSDL projects. He told the group that the NSDL community is like an ecosystem, and that each project should define its niche in that ecosystem including how it might pursue symbiotic relationships with other projects. In the closing session of the annual meeting, three digital library visionaries shared their views and experiences related to sustaining digital library programs and projects.

Photograph of the NSDL Sustainability Standing Committee

(l-r) Paul Berkeman, Chair, NSDL Sustainability Standing Committee, Kevin Guthrie, Ithaka, Laura Campbell, Library of Congress, Chris Greer, National Science Foundation Office of Cyberinfrastructure and Kaye Howe, Executive Director NSDL Core Integration. Photograph by Brad Edmondson.

Kevin Guthrie helped develop Journal Storage (, which offers digital storage of the archives of many scholarly journals. JSTOR was originally funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is now supported largely by licensing agreements. Guthrie has moved on to become president of Ithaka, a not-for-profit organization seeking to accelerate the productive uses of information technologies for the benefit of higher education.

JSTOR was driven by the vision of technology changing the way people use information, said Guthrie. One key to its success was transparency: when it made its index available to Google, use increased threefold. This was a big step forward but also created problems, he said, because costs were associated with increased use, and someone had to pay. "The costs were not large, but a small number multiplied by a very large number is still a large number," he said. He recommended that NSDL sites carefully understand their costs and consider how they might change as usage increases. He also stressed that digital library artifact has to have economic value coupled with ongoing access to succeed.

Ithaka assists new organizations by researching sustainability for their communities and providing strategic information. "I would encourage all of you to understand where your value really is, and to share your value whenever you can," said Guthrie. "This may go against your instincts, but it is important. Find out how you add value and stick to doing that."

Laura Campbell, Associate Librarian for Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress (LOC), remembered the day in 2000 when she found out that Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) had secured $100 million for the LOC to develop digital resources for education. "We were like the dog running after a car, and we caught a bus," she said. Campbell has since become responsible for strategic planning at the LOC, which includes cooperating with other institutions on the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIP).

The goal of NDIIP is to create a "universe of libraries to preserve and protect information over time," said Campbell. She imagines a day when all types of educational information will be openly available and provided by a public utility, as sewer and water are provided today.

The Library of Congress focuses on multiple humanities initiatives such as the American Memory Project, but they see the need to partner with digital library projects in science and mathematics, said Campbell. She is required to report back to Congress in 2010 with successful outcomes. "You are going to need to do the same thing," she told the audience. "And if we're both going to be telling our stories to Congress, we ought to leverage our efforts so we can tell the best story possible." For example, the LOC might choose to conserve digital records that tell the story of the birth of the dot-com industry, she said, and many members of the NDSL community might be able to share sources and records that pertain. She also pointed out that conservation of digital records in the film, gaming, and cartooning industries is almost nonexistent because the major players are competing with each other. NSDL and the Library of Congress could provide a safe neutral ground where industry leaders could talk about their shared need for permanent archives, she said.

Chris Greer is the Program Director at the National Science Foundation's Office of Cyberinfrastructure. Greer is responsible for digital data activities. He said that Berkman's analogy of an ecosystem is a good one, and he is committed to finding common threads in a chaotic environment where "a flood of digital information and products are both an end and a beginning for multiple groups and organizations."

Greer put the problem in context by pointing out that a human brain contains about 200 megabytes of information. All of the words ever spoken by human beings would amount to about five exabytes of data, which is 5000 bytes to the sixth power, he said. The total amount of electronic information available will probably exceed 10 exabytes in 2007, and another exabyte is being added every ten months. Greer said that only broad partnerships would be able to create a "digital data universe that will be understood both by specialists and non-specialists."

Coda: The Annual Zia Haikus

Lee Zia, the NSF program officer for NSDL, continued his tradition of closing the annual meeting by sharing haiku he had composed about digital libraries.

Photograph of Dr. Lee L. Zia

NSF's NSDL Program Director, Dr. Lee L. Zia
Photograph by Carol Minton Morris.

"Zia's Haikus" were delivered with the usual disclaimer that the "Views expressed are author's own and are not official NSF policy." Here are this year's offerings:

Web two-point-zero;
Veni, vidi, wiki, blog;
Two-way trumps one-way!
Sacrifice control,
But gain mind share. Through usage,
Determine value.
Reuse, repackage,
Repurpose; it's a mindset.
But recognize too!
For custom service;
Privacy as currency?
A new world beckons.
Teachable moments.
Formal blurs to informal,
And then back again.
Embrace the spectrum
From sandbox to reviewed gem,
Tap the social mind!

For more information about NSDL Annual Meeting presentations please visit the Annual Meeting web site ( You may download a podcast of selected NSDL Annual Meeting sessions from <>.

Appendix: Poster Session - A Marketplace of Ideas

The day before the opening session, representatives from 56 NSDL projects gathered to mingle and discuss their projects at the Marriott hotel across the street. These are a few examples from the lively and well-attended poster session exchange:

  • The BEN Collaborative ( was awarded a four-year, $2.8 million NSF grant last year that will allow it to increase its collection to more than 27,000 papers, images, labs exercises, and other materials. Founded in 1999 by AAAS and a few other groups as a portal for teachers in the biological sciences, BEN now includes 25 collaborators. Linda Akli, the AAAS liaison to BEN, reports that the site's home page will have a new design that includes an improved search engine and separate options for K-12 and college teachers.
  • The NSDL Registry ( provides support for human and machine use and re-use of metadata vocabularies to connect vocabulary owners with vocabulary users in a dynamic feedback loop. Developers Diane Hillmann, Cornell University Library, Stuart Sutton, University of Washington, and Jon Phipps, Cornell University Library, were on hand to encourage NSDL projects to register their vocabularies, or to use the "Sandbox" to test drive the service.
  • The Macaulay Library ( is working with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in Wayne County, New York to integrate animal sounds and video into classroom materials that will be distributed to Upstate teachers. Macaulay, a section of Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, is the world's largest archive of these materials. Its website allows the public to access the entire collection online. Colleen McLinn, Content Information Specialist, joined Macaulay earlier this year and is leading the classroom program.
  • The Math Gateway ( is an expansion of an earlier project called MathDL, sponsored by the Mathematics Association of America. It is a Pathway project, which means that it receives NSDL funds to manage web content for a specific field. Lang Moore, Principal Investiagor (PI) of the project, reports that it features online materials from 16 partners, some of which are still in development.
  • The ChemEd Digital Library is getting ready to go live. It will combine materials from three sources: the Journal of Chemical Education's digital library (, the American Chemical Society's Education Division, and ChemCollective (, a site that offers virtual versions of chemistry labs. The site aims to develop "communities of content" for different educational levels, different branches of chemistry, and different learning styles, reports John Moore of ChemEd.
  • Three side-by-side NSDL Core Integration posters demonstrated how NSDL 2.0 tools powered by Fedora ( such as the Expert Voices ( blogging system and the On Ramp content and communications system integrate different kinds of information, from workshop materials to rich media and commentary, into the framework of the library. Dean Krafft, PI of NSDL Core Integration at Cornell, explained that these and other services allow users to classify, organize, annotate, and create library resources.
Copyright © 2006 Brad Edmondson and Carol Minton Morris

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