Initial Publication Date: November 29, 2012

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

  • 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.