23, No. 11, Dec. 4, 2003
Closing of ERIC clearinghouse signals
end of an era
(217) 333-2894; email@example.com
by Bill Wiegand
out, ECAP in
Dianne Rothenberg, left, and Lilian Katz intend to
“finish well” as they anticipate the closing
of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early
Childhood Education, one of 16 ERIC clearinghouses
closing their doors around the country this month.
Despite the loss of federal funding, several elements
of what has been part of the clearinghouse will continue
as part of the recently created Early
Childhood and Parenting Collaborative (ECAP).
36 years, the UI has been home to the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary
and Early Childhood Education. The clearinghouse doors will close, however,
on Dec. 31 – at the same time 15 other clearinghouses around the
country that have been part of the federally funded ERIC
(Educational Resources Information Center) system will be closed. Aspects
of what the clearinghouse has done will continue, and maybe even grow.
Since its start in 1967, the clearinghouse has brought in millions in
grant dollars, abstracted and archived more than 50,000 documents and
articles, responded to more than 100,000 questions and requests for
information, and produced hundreds of research summaries and other articles
for use by the general public.
Drawing from campus strengths in computer and information technology,
it was early in seeing the potential of the computer and the Internet
in carrying out its mission, says Lilian Katz, professor emeritus of
education, an internationally known expert on early childhood, and director
of the clearinghouse since 1970. As a result, the clearinghouse, and
the larger ERIC system, would gradually broaden its audience beyond
the scholars for whom it was originally designed.
In 1993, the clearinghouse became the home for the new National Parent
Information Network (NPIN), which was soon on the new World Wide Web,
designed to provide a means for parents and other caregivers to access
the wealth of educational research available through the ERIC system
and other sources.
“We were an information system waiting for the Internet to happen,”
says Dianne Rothenberg, a clearinghouse administrator for 25 years and
a co-director with Katz since 1999.
Closing along with the clearinghouses will be NPIN and the national
“Ask ERIC” system, which has responded to more than 335,000
queries over its 11-year history, Rothenberg said. The ERIC database
will continue, but many questions remain unanswered about how it will
be maintained, how additional documents will be selected or weeded out,
and how accessible the database will be, Katz said.
The closings are part of a restructuring plan for ERIC designed and
implemented by the U.S. Department of Education, under provisions of
the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002. The stated goal of the plan
is to bring greater speed, efficiency and cost-effectiveness to the
ERIC system, the world’s largest and most frequently used education
database, containing more than 1 million items.
Katz and Rothenberg, however, make no secret of their belief that the
restructuring is about more than efficiency. As part of her case, Katz
noted that “nobody at the federal level ever asked any of us about
our experience … they didn’t want our views, they weren’t
Katz sees the ERIC database as a library designed to reflect all views
and make them accessible, not aiming to promote any one perspective.
That’s especially important in the field of education, she said,
since much in the field cannot be proven by experimentation.
“The only chance we’ve got is to put our views out and have
them argued and fought over and disputed,” Katz said.
But the temptation always exists to fill the research vacuum with ideology,
and that is what she feels she’s seeing in the current handling
of ERIC. “What I’m worried about, honestly, is how they’re
going to restrict the input (to the ERIC database) from now on,”
The clearinghouses, each with an area of expertise, have been responsible
for selecting the material that would go in the database, and Katz believes
the clearinghouses are being eliminated to give the government more
Rothenberg raised similar concerns. “I think that people in the
universities who are not aware need to become aware that we are in a
major paradigm shift in terms of federally funded educational programming
in this country,” she said. “This is a whole new ballgame
when you say that federally funded programs should support primarily,
if not only, the federal government’s ideas about how something
should be done. That has generally been a role reserved for cooperative
If it can happen in education, it can happen in other fields, Rothenberg
said. “ERIC may be like the canary in the mine tunnel.”
The ERIC system began in 1966 with a fairly simple mandate to archive
the numerous documents produced by federally funded educational studies.
“They literally called them ‘fugitive documents,’
” Katz said.
The clearinghouses were established in places with known expertise in
given areas, and the UI already was strong in the field of early childhood.
The UI clearinghouse was first the ERIC Clearinghouse on Early Childhood
Katz took over as the clearinghouse director in 1970 and has seen her
role as one of bridging the cultures of educational research and practice.
In performing that role and others, she has logged millions of miles
in the air, visiting every state several times and more than 50 other
countries, and been surprised at where and how ERIC materials are used.
“I have always been amazed at how people outside the U.S. use
the ERIC system, especially since it’s been computer-accessible,”
When the ERIC system was started, the technology of choice for storing
and distributing documents was the microfiche. Each clearinghouse sent
its materials to a processing center in Washington, D.C., where they
were put on microfiche, and then distributed to libraries and other
institutions. Hard copies of individual articles could be ordered and
received through the mail.
Rothenberg arrived at the UI clearinghouse in the summer of 1978 with
experience as an English teacher and with a newly minted UI master’s
degree in library science. In various positions over 25 years, she has
watched the transitions brought on by changes in computers and information
The 1980s brought the rise of the personal computer, and microfiche
began to be replaced by the CD-ROM. Then, of course, came possibilities
brought on by the Internet and then the Web.
As those possibilities became apparent, “our idea was that ERIC
should be maximally accessible to parents and families, not just scientists
and university folks,” Rothenberg said. “We’d have
conversations weekly talking about how we can’t wait until this
is on everybody’s desk.” Now they go to workshops with teachers
and parents and ask who uses the Internet, “and every hand in
the room goes up,” she said.
But along with that accessibility came a need to provide additional
help to those wanting to use a system originally designed for librarians
and researchers, Rothenberg said.
The answer was “Ask ERIC,” a national system through which
anyone could submit a query through e-mail or a phone call.
“We have always been able to represent ourselves as being very
balanced in our approach to information-providing,” Rothenberg
said. “We are not pushing a particular program, a particular approach.”
Even with the end of its ERIC clearinghouse, and the end of that funding,
the UI is in a better position than many of the institutions that are
losing clearinghouses, Katz and Rothenberg both noted.
Anticipating the ERIC restructuring, the College of Education last spring
established a new Early Childhood
and Parenting Collaborative (ECAP), which gathers more than a dozen
projects under one roof, including ongoing elements of what has been
part of the clearinghouse.
“The fact of the matter is, even when I look at it objectively,
we have the seeds of something great here,” Rothenberg said. “Those
seeds have been nourished by the lessons ERIC has taught us all these
years. We’ve taken those and applied them to other projects, and
we’re going to go on from here.”