Standards Watch

Thinking About the Standards Environment

As part of my work life (not to mention in my role as LITA Standards Coordinator) I subscribe to a lot of discussion lists. Many of you do the same, and I’m betting you’re like me—you don’t read everything, but the posts of particular people always get noticed. The “Next Generation Catalogs for Libraries ( list is always a good one for useful discussion, and Karen Coyle is often up to her eyeballs in the discussion.

One recent post of hers on standards (May 11, for those of you who want to check the archives) was so good and thought provoking I wanted to make sure more people saw it—particularly LITA people who have a strong interest in standards.

Karen starts out by quoting a previous comment by Casey Bisson:

“OpenSearch creator DeWitt Clinton spoke of it along these lines:
standards bodies are good at formalizing what’s become standard
practice. (Paraphrasing) “If people don’t already agree on what the
standard is, then no committee will solve that…it shouldn’t even go
to committee.”

And Karen came back with:

“It is absolutely the case that standards bodies do not create standards. That’s not their role, and I think they know it. Standards bodies are in the business of creating a formal agreed standard from what has become common practice (which is often sorta standard but not quite) or of reconciling competing practices, and then promoting and maintaining the standard. Ideally standards bodies would run, or manage the running of, registries and other parts of the standards infrastructure.

The other thing they do is allow folks who weren’t initially involved in the development of the standard to get their licks in. For example, the ISO puts a certain amount of effort into bringing developing countries into the standards-using community. NISO involves a community of vendors and their customers.

In the library world, standards are essentially agreements between libraries and their vendors. The vendors are great supporters of the standards process because it means that they can (supposedly) create a system based on a single data structure (like MARC) that will then be accepted by all of their customers.

The problem that we see today in the library world is that when there is a standard that is rising up to the point of being useful and usable by many in our community, it isn’t clear where to take it so that it can move from being a neat hack to being a community standard. NISO, as many have noted, takes too long to move a standard forward. LC manages standards but doesn’t have a good process for community involvement (e.g. MODS, where the only community input is a listserv). ALA apparently got out of the standards business about 20 years ago, and yet in theory would be an obvious body to promote library interests. It would be to our advantage to have a clear and smooth standards process.”

So, given this standards reality check from Karen, what are the implications for us? One might be that we’re involved in standards activities that we haven’t even identified as such—clearly most of us don’t wake up in the morning and (like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland) say “Hey, lets make up a standard today,” but in fact as we do our work we tend to think about the general implications of decisions we make on behalf of our projects and libraries. There are places where we can step in and participate in the process when it’s already started (and I’ll be talking about a specific opportunity in an upcoming post), though clearly most of us don’t take up those opportunities too often, mostly because we already have busy lives and sometimes our institutions don’t support such activity very well.

But in a sense the bigger question Karen asks is in that last paragraph. Are the places we take our standards for that transition from “neat hack to being a community standard” functioning well for us? Karen notes that there are problems in many of the institutional places where we used to look for that effort (I would particularly suggest that we look closely at the differences between how MARC21 is managed as a standard and how MODS is being developed).

We’ll have an upcoming opportunity to ask one of the important movers and shakers about these issues. Todd Carpenter, the new Managing Director of NISO, will be talking about the “New NISO” at the LITA Standards IG at Annual. Here’s the details:

The New NISO: New structures, goals and initiatives.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
4:00 PM- 5:30 PM
Washington Convention Center room: Room 143 B

The announcement ends: “Discussions of future directions for the development of standards in emerging areas of interest will be welcome.” Here’s the opportunity for engagement—let’s make sure we take advantage. [Also note that the IG is looking for a vice-chair/chair-elect—contact Eva Bolkovac ( if you’re interested.]

Comments, anyone?


  1. Laura Smart

    The implication of Karen’s comments is that, if ALA is the logical body for helping neat hacks become standards, then there’s some shaking up that needs to be done within ALA in terms of how the association as a whole deals with standards. I’ve been thinking about this a lot from the perspective of a CC:DA voting member. I have a ranty blog entry yet to be finished on CC:DA and it’s relation to standards, which I’ll post soon. It’s great that LITA is taking the lead. The question is, how to coordinate with other ALA divisions. Can we convince ALCTS and LAMA of the importance of participating in standards work and moving beyond library-only standards to library-intereoperable standards? Possibly. I’m just not quite sure how. And I’m also afraid to make suggestions since it means volunteering to take on more work!

  2. Chris Schwartz

    Diane, Thanks for this interesting post. My opinion may not be well informed, but here goes: it seems that the library standards development process has not been very open and inclusive. The standards organizations would do well to follow the lead of the business world and consider opening up the conversation via blogs. So, I’d suggest these organizations consider tapping into the medium of blogs as an easy way for interested parties to have an informal conversation and possibly reach some kind of consensus about standards. The proliferation of library blogs suggests this might be a good mechanism.

  3. jjohnson256

    I agree with Chris, follow the lead of the business world and open up the conversation via blogs.

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