NSDL: Retrospective Essays > Library as Metaphor

Library as Metaphor


NSDL was conceived at a time when both the promise and the shortcomings of the World Wide Web for education were apparent. NSDL was rooted in the notion that values added by libraries were critically important to realizing the potential of the Web and addressing its shortcomings. The library metaphor allowed the NSDL community to achieve a level of agreement that helped catalyze the NSDL collaborative initiative. However, the term "library" is overloaded with meanings that have become both assets and liabilities. Comparison to a library, with its traditional role as selector and purveyor of published information, can perpetuate the view of library as distribution channel, perhaps overlooking or underestimating its place and potential in supporting users in the creation of new resources.

Lessons Learned

Essay: Library as Metaphor


Metaphors are powerful mental models that help us make meaning of our world. Our use of metaphors is sometimes purposeful and sometimes almost accidental (Lakoff, 1980). Since virtual organizations such as digital libraries are difficult to visualize, employing the metaphor of a library was helpful to explain the ideas behind it (Gazendam, 1999). This metaphor became a driving concept that helped NSDL achieve the level of agreement necessary to initiate the NSDL collaborative.

As with many metaphors, however, the many interpretations of "library" became both assets and liabilities. In this essay, we explore how the metaphor worked and did not work and how it fared during the various phases of this long-term project. The NSDL community held multiple definitions, often conflicting, of what a "digital library" was or should be. Some participants used the term strictly metaphorically, while others tried to build a digital representation of a more physical or "bricks and mortar" structure. (For more information, see Endnote 1: Evolution of the National Science Digital Library as a Metaphor.)1

The Library Metaphor as an Asset

A library is a multi-faceted endeavor that adds value to the items in its collections. Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation, in its 1998 Annual Report, articulated the grand tradition of what a library could embody:

A living institution, libraries contain the heritage of humanity: the record of its triumphs and failures, its intellectual, scientific, and artistic achievements, and its collective memory.... They provide tools for learning, understanding, and progress. They are the wellspring of action, a laboratory of human aspiration, a window to the future...they are a medium of progress, autonomy, empowerment, independence, and self-determination...the symbol of our universal community, of the unity of all knowledge, of the commonwealth of learning.... It represents and embodies the spirit of humanity in all ages (p. 9).

NSDL was conceived at a time when both the promise and the shortcomings of the World Wide Web for education were becoming apparent. Many in the NSDL community were taken by the notion that the values of traditional libraries could be critically important both to realizing the potential of the Web and to addressing its shortcomings. These aspects of libraries informed the initial design of NSDL and eventually resulted in policies to support critical digital library functions. (For more information, see Endnote 2: More about Library Metaphors)2

The Library Metaphor as a Liability

For all its value in creating enthusiasm and painting a broad picture of NSDL potential, significant problems arose from the use of the library metaphor in creating a focused, coherent vision for the effort. These problems are outlined in the following subsections.

Metaphors Mask Differences in Viewpoints

Metaphors can have somewhat plastic understandings, making the communication of vision, mission, audience, and expectations for experiences difficult at best. This diversity may stem from an individual's personal interactions with a library or its services, or conversely, from no personal experience at all, with both situations leading to the perpetuation of differing interpretations. The metaphor may be insufficient to create a congruent vision in the minds of all users or developers.

Because the utility of any metaphor depends on a shared understanding of its meaning, we must consider the case where the metaphor "library" does not conjure up a mental model of any kind. This possibility seemed unlikely at the onset of NSDL. However, in today's world, the widespread use of mobile technologies, the ubiquity of accessible information resources, and the emergence of generations that may never enter a physical library raise the possibility that the word "library" in the future may reference some untethered device rather than a building and its associated services.

Comparison to a library, with its traditional role as selector and purveyor of published information, can perpetuate the view of library as distribution channel, perhaps overlooking or underestimating its place and potential in supporting users in the creation of new resources.

Metaphors Can Perpetuate Misconceptions

The use of a metaphor can also lead to misconceptions about or lowered receptiveness to new ways of performing key functions. In the case of libraries, misconceptions and resistance include the following examples:

  • Libraries and their contents are free. The relatively wide acceptance of libraries as a public good tends to hide their costs from most users. This fact exacerbates the challenges of identifying effective business models for a new enterprise such as NSDL.
  • Libraries are controlled centrally. Brick and mortar libraries typically have clear lines of leadership, authority, and control that are largely invisible to most users and difficult to translate into community-oriented virtual libraries such as NSDL.
  • Librarians provide the path for finding materials.Although search, browse, discovery, and other key library functions once were possible only by creating proxies such as catalog cards for each item in a library's collection, technology now makes direct access so straightforward that new mechanisms are constantly being invented. Legacy emphasis on the critical value of human cataloging can be an impediment to such advances in terms of attitudes or resource allocations.
  • Users are not creators.The important potential of role reversals, where vast numbers of readers and content users are empowered to become the creators or authors of new content, is more difficult to envision in the context of traditional libraries where relatively few are authors.
  • Libraries are perceived as old fashioned.Although the authors believe this perception is wildly inaccurate, many people think of libraries as old fashioned or even obsolete institutions, and these perceptions impede branding, marketing, and other aspects of implementing a truly viable and sustainable business model.

Lessons Learned

  • Use of a shared image or metaphor has a significant impact on a project's identity and expectations, and organizations should approach its adoption carefully.
  • Any metaphor brings with it an associated understanding, but everyone may not always share the same interpretation.
  • Whether well chosen or not, once a project associates with a metaphor, any change is likely to cause confusion among those who have adopted it.
  • New programs with names that do not convey an easily understood model face a different challenge. For example, the name of the NSF CyberLearning program does not create a false image but, on the other hand, neither does it convey an immediate understanding of its goals.
  • Use a metaphor only with abundant explanation.


1Evolution of the of National Science Digital Library as a Metaphor

The initial vision of what was to become NSDL grew, in part, from the comprehensive review of the state of undergraduate STEM education, Shaping the Future, New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (NSF 96-139) . This report called for a digital clearinghouse to organize, validate, and disseminate the instructional resources produced through the NSF's Course and Curriculum Development Program (CCD), Instrumentation and Library Improvement Program (ILI), and later Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) projects funded by the Division of Undergraduate Education.

Subsequent advisory reports reviewed the potential of information technology to transform STEM education and emphasized the role of instructional technology in supporting "access to world-wide resources, accumulation and presentation of data, and enabling communication, interaction, and collaboration among students and instructors to improve the practice of teaching and the experience of learning" (NSF 98-182).

The original outlines for a [link http://www.dlib.org/smete/ 'SMETE Library' new] (Fortenberry, 1998) were presented in two reports:

The concept of a digital library emerged from this discussion because it seemed to capture the need to share resources widely with a community, effectively organize resources, and support users with a strong set of library services. Early discussions added the notion of library as community center—the "intellectual commons" of a discipline—that integrates collections, services, and people in support of excellence in STEM education (Manduca and Mogk, 2000).

The technical advances that motivated the creation of NSDL were also rooted in the emerging world of digital libraries as much as in that of the Web in general. The concept of a central information or knowledge store had been explored previously by visionaries such as Vannevar Bush (1945) and J.C.R. Licklider (1965). The bringing together of technical advances with the needs of the educational community were highlighted in two important guiding principles in an essay by Dr. Christine Borgman, "Social Aspects of Digital Libraries" (1996):

  • Digital libraries are a set of electronic resources and associated technical capabilities for creating, searching, and using information. In this sense, they are an extension and enhancement of information storage and retrieval systems that manipulate digital data in any medium (text, sounds, static or dynamic images) and exist in distributed networks.
  • Digital libraries are constructed by a community of users, and their functional capabilities support the information needs and uses of that community. They are a component of communities in which individuals and groups interact with each other, using data, information, and knowledge resources and systems. In this sense, they are an extension, enhancement, and integration of a variety of information institutions as physical places where resources are selected, collected, organized, preserved, and accessed in support of a user community.

Thus, the concepts of what constitutes a library were deeply embedded into NSDL from the beginning. This approach required careful coordination of diverse educational needs and expectations with the technology that could make this vision a reality. The foundational document, Pathways to Progress (2000), provided an ambitious direction for NSDL:

The National Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (SMET) Education Digital Library (NSDL) was conceived and is being constructed to support excellence in SMET education for all Americans. The NSDL will be a comprehensive information system built as a distributed network and will develop and make accessible collections of high-quality resources for instruction at all levels and in all educational settings. It will also establish and maintain communication networks to facilitate interactions and collaborations among all SMET educators and learners, and will foster development of new communities of learners in SMET education. Multiple services will be available to help users effectively access and use NSDL resources.

2More about Library Metaphors

Libraries can be associated with many metaphors, including the following examples:

  • Library as Network. Traditionally, libraries serve users through both centralized and distributed points of contact (e.g., main and branch libraries), many of which are specifically tailored to the needs of a smaller or more discrete group of users. Libraries also participate in collaborations with other library entities to share services and resources (e.g., OCLC, ARL). Digital libraries expand the possibilities inherent in networks, facilitating rich connections between online resources and users.
  • Library as Place. In the United States, a library is first and foremost a public good for anyone who cares to cross the threshold. It is a place where people meet, exchange ideas, and participate in serendipitous discovery. Mobile and tablet devices have changed our notion of place because people can now cross a virtual threshold to enter a library any place at anytime.
  • Library as Collection. Unlike a bricks-and-mortar library, a digital library lets a single resource exist simultaneously in more than one collection. Linkages among digital objects also greatly expand the notion of "collection." At the same time, curation of digital collections provides a fresh context for old challenges while creating new issues and opportunities (e.g., crowd-sourcing some functions such as resource selection and cataloging).
  • Library as Contextualizer. Traditional libraries provide context about their holdings, such as the descriptive information in catalog records or the conceptual associations of subject terms. Digital libraries extend the degree of context available about resources, such as nuanced recommendations for pedagogical use or usage data such as "likes" or "downloads." Digital libraries also provide an infrastructure that supports complex relationships among information objects, representing them in context rather than as an isolated resource found through a stand-alone Web search.
  • Library as Services. Much of a traditional library's value is manifest in services provided to patrons. Digital libraries offer an opportunity to expand the notion of user services, some of which do not have good analogs in traditional libraries. Digital library services also can expand the idea of access, providing resource metadata in different contexts or creating personalized views into digital collections.
  • Library as Impact. NSDL provides worldwide access to high-quality STEM materials for all users from "K to grey." This inclusive mission fits very well within the library metaphor especially as supported by the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights, which stresses the important role of libraries in providing information for all.
  • Library as Community. Libraries have traditionally been at the center of community life—a place where people come to learn about community events and to meet according to self-organizing principles. Libraries also aggregate a range of community resources beyond texts, such as maps, artworks or other visualizations, and tools. Digital libraries have expanded the possibilities for the creation of virtual communities.