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A 21st century library

New director brings experience in digital collections to NCAR

by Bob Henson

Mary Marlino

Mary Marlino. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

When the air in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, got chilly and the skies turned gray, Mary Marlino knew where to head. "I loved libraries. I liked the smell. I liked the feel. The library was physically and metaphorically at the center of our town."

Marlino still loves libraries, but her view of them has expanded since her childhood days. Since 1998, she's directed the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE) Program Center (DPC) in UOP. DLESE is an NSF-funded effort to develop access and services to enhance use of online resources by K-12 educators and learners. With the initial DLESE grant now expired, the DPC is moving in new directions under a new name (see sidebar). Meanwhile, Marlino has been tapped to lead the NCAR Library into a digitally driven era, one with many opportunities as well as a few minefields.

Countless scientific visitors have spent hours in the stacks and carrels at NCAR's Mesa and Foothills labs. A third library site opened at Center Green in 2005. These brick-and-mortar outposts remain vital, but they don't see the foot traffic they once did. "Fewer and fewer people are coming to the library. Our users now expect services from their desktops," says Marlino.

The digital age is also rocking the tradition-bound world of scholarly publishing. Whereas scientists once expected to wait more than a year from completing a paper to seeing it in print, online venues such as Science Express can bring a paper through review and get it online in mere weeks. After some tentative first steps, all-electronic journals such as Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems (AGU) and Earth Interactions (AMS) are now gaining momentum. Yet it's far from clear how publishers and scientific societies will maintain the revenue stream that print journals have long provided. The role of the library as mediator between journal and reader is also in flux. "This is a very dynamic scene—it's still unfolding," says Marlino.

One thing is clear: the NCAR Library is looking beyond its own walls more than ever. More than 75% of NCAR proposals above the $100,000 threshold now include university participation, compared to 64% in fiscal year 2005. (This refers to proposals submitted by NCAR to other agencies and those to NSF for grants beyond the center's core funding.) "Because the way our science is conducted has changed, the mission of the library has to accommodate that change," Marlino says. "It's a natural extension of our service to the community."

Finding ways to bring NCAR Library holdings and services to a larger community isn't always easy. Proprietary databases available to NCAR staff and visitors, such as Web of Science, are typically too expensive to provide for UCAR members and affiliates. (see related discussion)

However, the library offers other digital assets that university scientists may not be aware of. For example, the full array of NCAR Technical Notes can be accessed online in PDF form (see "On the Web"). Over 450 "tech notes," many of them documenting model code or summarizing dissertations, have been produced since NCAR's founding in 1960. "We have some unique, priceless holdings. We want to make sure they're accessible and people know where they are," says Marlino.

New digital collections are in the works as well. One goal is to put long-time scientists' records into electronic form before the materials get tucked away in back rooms. Climate modeler Warren Washington, now in his 44th year at NCAR, recently presented the UCAR/NCAR Archives with 40 boxes of papers. "He's got pencil sketches of early models—wonderful stuff," says Marlino. She's working with other library staff and NCAR archivist Diane Rabson to pull together notes, letters, photos, and other material into a digital package that will become the Warren Washington Archives. Other scientist-oriented collections will follow. The library also now hosts the DLESE holdings (see sidebar).

The library's archival role is becoming more complex as e-mail threads and PowerPoint files take the place of scratch pads and transparencies. The library is looking at ways to capture and catalog these steps in the research chain, which may seem minor now but could be critical to a future historian. When scientific papers and datasets undergo revisions and corrections, there's even more material to document. "The protocols for referencing scientific data are still evolving," says Marlino.

Marlino and her staff aren't going it alone as they rethink the structure and purpose of the NCAR Library. They've pulled together internal and external advisory groups, and in October, Marlino met with the NCAR Library Advisory Board, a diverse group of community members. "They were very clear about their sense of the library as collaboratory," Marlino says. Likewise, she adds, NCAR director Tim Killeen and deputy director Larry Winter see the center's library as fulfilling multiple roles beyond the traditional ones.

The DLESE/DLS model: After the seed money, putting down roots

It's one thing to launch a digital library when interest is keen and start-up grants are readily available. It's another to keep it going. A few years into the cyber-revolution, many digital libraries now face uncertain times, as funding grows tighter and sustainability becomes an issue.

Despite hundreds of thousands of users in the United States and around the world, the DLESE program faced the end of its financial road last year, when its initial five-year NSF grant ran out. After a year of transition that included some layoffs, the program's transformation is nearly complete. Many of the staff in UOP's former DLESE Program Center are now in Digital Learning Sciences (DLS), which developed DLESE. DLS is a collaboration between UOP and the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU). In the new structure:

  • DLS and its 25 staff, students, and faculty will continue research on cyberinfrastructure and online learning while maintaining the software that underpins DLESE.

  • The DLESE collections are now being curated by the NCAR library.

  • The DLESE holdings are also woven into the National Science Digital Library, a broader set of online resources with core activities based in UOP.

DLS's executive director is Tamara Sumner, a co–principal investigator on the DLESE grant and a CU associate professor in cognitive and computer science. Karon Kelly, former deputy director of DLESE, now heads DLS activities at UCAR.

The last thing DLESE's funders and staff wanted was to see the program's vast store of online educational resources and other holdings deteriorate for lack of an adequate home. "NSF asked that we find some way to preserve open access to the collection and keep it from degrading," says Kelly. In looking for a new home for DLESE, "we were advised by a group of experts in information science, geoscience education, and business, as well as former members of the DLESE Steering Committee." The group didn't settle on NCAR right away, Kelly says. However, she adds, "most of the alternatives would not have added significantly to the collection over time or provided education services to users." NCAR's ample bandwidth and engineering support will keep the holdings readily accessible, while the NCAR Library works to keep the collection fresh.

Sumner is also heading up several DLS studies, including one NSF-funded project to produce online teacher guides that connect science concepts to district-mandated curricula at various grade levels. Though oriented to Earth science, "we believe this approach will be generalizable," says Sumner. "Nationwide, educators are searching for ways to meet the diverse learning needs of their students while at the same time adhering to the requirements of meeting district standards. This effort is an important step in harnessing technology to address that problem."

On the Web

Digital Learning Sciences

Digital Library for Earth Science Education

NCAR Library

NCAR Technical Notes




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