Building the future of libraries online

Kaye Howe, Director of NSDL

Photo of Kaye Howe
Kaye Howe (Photo by Carlye Calvin, UCAR.)

At first glance, the holder of a Ph.D. in comparative literature might not seem like the most likely candidate for a job at UCAR, an organization dedicated primarily to atmospheric science.

From Kaye Howe's perspective, however, science is but one important part of a greater purpose to which she has dedicated her career. "Science is part of the Renaissance dream of a life of the mind," she explains. "I don't participate in science in a professional way, but rather as a wonderful approach to knowledge and understanding."

Since 2004, Kaye has been supporting the broad quest for knowledge and understanding through her role as executive director of the National Science Digital Library. NSDL is an online library that directs users to high-quality resources for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. The goal is to relieve educators from the task of wading through the Web's overabundance of resources by pinpointing for them those that are truly noteworthy. Students, librarians, policy makers, and the public also turn to the library for useful information.

"This world of incredible access to digital information has been dazzling to all of us, but it's overwhelming. It's like standing in a library with billions and billions of books, but no cataloging system," Kaye says. "We have an obligation to organize the material, give people access to it, and give people context that will make it useful to them."

The library lets users search by keyword, browse different topics and collections, view the library's top picks, subscribe to newsfeeds, stay on top of upcoming conferences and events, and more. Users can narrow the search field by grade level (kindergarten through graduate school) or by format (text, images, audio, video, data, and interactive resources).

Because NSDL involves many partners and contributors scattered across various academic institutions, a major part of Kaye's day-to-day job is to facilitate communication and keep a complicated system of distributed activity running smoothly. Her biggest reward, she says, is the level of dedication she observes among her colleagues.

"The people who work on NSDL, here at UCAR and in the academic community, are very committed to digital libraries and dedicated to education—science education in particular," Kaye says. "I've always liked every job I've had in education, because people are so committed and willing."

Kaye's own commitment to education and related fields has a long history. As a college student at Washington University in St. Louis, she initially thought she might want to be a doctor someday—until she began the requisite coursework. "That lasted about twenty minutes," she laughs. "Chemistry was not what I had in mind."

So Kaye returned to the humanities and arts, which had always interested her as a child. She stayed at Washington University to earn a Ph.D. in comparative literature.

Screen shot of NSDL web site home page
The National Science Digital Library is a continually expanding treasure trove of organized resources and tools to support educators at all levels in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. Established by the National Science Foundation, NSDL is a community effort coordinated by UCAR.

Afterward, she joined the faculty of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she served as chair of the graduate program in comparative literature before becoming the university's vice chancellor for academic services in 1981. From 1990 to 1996, she did a stint as president of Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado. After leaving Western State, she returned to Boulder and was president of Jones International University, a regionally accredited distance learning organization.

When UCAR received a grant from the National Science Foundation to start NSDL, Kaye was asked to serve as an adviser. She ended up joining the staff in 2001. "It was one of those accidental events in which I was standing someplace at the right moment," she says about her position. "But I've enjoyed it enormously."

Over the years Kaye has devoted remarkable energy to community service, a part of her life that has energized her career. "Any world can seem too small, so it's wonderful to get out in these activities and be involved in other worlds," she says. Her involvement has ranged from chairing local arts boards to serving as president of the I Have a Dream Foundation of Boulder County. In 2004 she was honored with the YWCA of Boulder County Woman of the Year award.

Kaye stresses that an important part of any career is to look for professional opportunities in whatever form they take.

"Sometimes people's thinking is too limited when it comes to the recognition of opportunity," she says. "To recognize something that doesn't come in a box labeled 'Opportunity' is a talent that a lot of people don't have because it demands a certain generosity in one's own thinking. Sometimes these opportunities just look like more work, or helping others."

For example, a seemingly minor task such as volunteering for a search committee can teach a person valuable lessons about how institutions work and how to interact with colleagues. "An important part of anyone's career is to understand the nature of institutions and human interaction, and you need to seek the opportunities to do that," Kaye says.

After all, small opportunities build confidence for bigger opportunities that come along, she points out. "Test yourself out. Learn how to speak up, have confidence in your own ability, and listen to other people."

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About NSDL

by Nicole Gordon
September 2006

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