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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

The Digital Library For Earth System Education: Building Community, Building the Library

Science educators have called repeatedly for an information system that can effectively deliver quality educational materials in readily accessible formats, with a high degree of confidence in their usefulness, interest, and effectiveness [4]. In the past 18 months, the Earth system education community has begun development of the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE).

Earth system educators and key agency officials at NSF and NASA have recognized that the convergence of information and learning technologies, the maturation of basic digital library research, and the increasing ubiquity of the Web in classrooms has made the DLESE both possible and timely. Representatives of the Earth system education community came together in August 1999 to institute a governance system and an operational arm (the DLESE Program Center, or DPC) to design and develop a community-sponsored and community-owned digital library [3].

DLESE will serve the unique needs of Earth system educators and learners at all academic levels, in both formal and informal settings, by providing:

Interfaces and tools to allow student exploration of geospatial materials and Earth data sets. Though a wealth of Earth data exists on the Web, much of it is difficult for educators to use. DLESE will provide student-friendly access to a wide variety of archived and real-time data sets.

Rapid, sophisticated access to collections of peer-reviewed teaching and learning resources. Earth science educators have been frustrated in attempts to find high-quality teaching resources appropriate for their teaching style and educational level on the Web in a timely manner. This resource discovery challenge is being met with the creation of metadata schemas, controlled vocabularies, and cataloging best practice recommendations, all informed by community participation [2].

Services to help users effectively create and use materials. A full array of digital services and human-mediated services for both users and contributors to the library is critical to the vision of DLESE as an active organization that both builds and serves its community.

A community center to facilitate sharing and collaboration. DLESE will serve as an intellectual commons for the global Earth system community by being the primary contact for educators, learners, and citizens who seek reliable information about the Earth.

A federated collection of holdings. DLESE is being designed from the beginning to support resource discovery across a diverse, federated network of holdings and collections (for example, NASA, Alexandria Digital Library). These distributed resources will be complemented by a small, centrally managed core collection.

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The DLESE Community Framework

DLESE is a significant undertaking, and our library building effort is as much a social experiment as it is a technical challenge. DLESE's community participation framework and participatory design process emphasize inclusiveness, promote a process of cultural change [1], and are essentially the intersection of three primary functions: policy, operations, and community.

Critical to the construction and management of DLESE is a governance structure that supports wide involvement in policy decisions. Library policy is set by the DLESE Steering Committee, broadly representative of Earth science education for ages 5–21 and informal education, informed by Standing Committees (Collections, Technology, Users, and Services) reflecting the diverse needs of the community DLESE seeks to serve.

The DPC performs key operational functions for the library, and is headquartered at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, CO. Some of the critical activities under way include the development of the DLESE system architecture, user interface, and standards and protocols for metadata and interoperability.

A third and crucial leg of the DLESE framework is an informed and engaged community. By shaping the conditions of library use, community members are subsequently in a better position to influence policy decisions [1]. Community members have contributed user scenarios, resources, developed review criteria, reviewed metadata standards, and articulated policies for academic recognition and intellectual property.

Accomplishments over the past year include developing and evaluating a library test bed, significantly engaging the community in the process, establishing a community-led governance mechanism, initiating collections development activities, and designing and developing a metadata schema and cataloging tools.

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A distinguishing mark of DLESE is its grassroots foundation and its emphasis on participatory design. As the library grows and matures, DLESE will face the special demands of scalability and sustainability that accompany such ambitious efforts. These demands will be met by effectively harnessing the energy of the Earth science community while simultaneously exploiting technological advances, such as computer-enhanced indexing of digital materials. In the same way the Earth system approach provides unifying principles for understanding interactions among its many components, we hope DLESE will facilitate interactions and cultural change that promote the integration of research into education, reflection on and improvements in teaching processes, and ultimately, increased understanding and stewardship of our Earth.

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1. Ehn, P. Work-Oriented Design of Computer Artifacts. Arbetslivscentrum, Stockholm, 1988.

2. Ginger, K. DLESE Metadata Working Group;

3. Manduca, C., and Mogk, D. DLESE: A Community Plan. Final Report from the University of Oklahoma to the National Science Foundation, Grant 00-006648.

4. National Science Foundation. Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology, (NSF 96-139). Arlington, VA (1996);

5. Smith, T. and Frew, J. Alexandria digital library. Commun. ACM 38, 4 (Apr. 1995), 61–62.

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The authors are members of the DLESE development team. Marlino ( and Fulker are from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research; Sumner, The University of Colorado; Manduca, Carleton College; Mogk, Montana State University.

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The work described in this article is funded under Cooperative Agreement #ATM 9732665 between the National Science Foundation and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), Grant Awards #9978338, #0085600, and #0086100, and by supplemental funding received from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/0500  $5.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


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