Standards Watch

Pursuing Standards Participation

Part of my brief as LITA Standards Coordinator is to encourage LITA members to participate in the process of standards development, and unfortunately it’s still a real challenge to keep abreast of what’s happening. ALA is a voting member of NISO (the National Information Standards Organization) and has an appointed liaison to manage their voting process. Cindy Hepfer from Buffalo is the current appointee and she maintains a mailing list (which I’m on, in my official capacity) that she keeps apprised of what she knows about standards in various stages of development, dissemination, and voting. In general, it’s a well-oiled machine, but sometimes it hiccups.

One such hiccup surfaced this past week, when I got a query from a LITA member about voting on a new version of ISO/FDIS 2709, which is the international standard that corresponds to NISO Z39.2, the underlying standard for MARC. I checked my email, and I hadn’t gotten any messages about this, so asked the member to forward the notification (I’m also checking with Cindy to see whether she’d gotten anything about it). The comment and recommendation period ends on December 12–a pretty tight timeframe.

To a certain extent, though it’s a bit worrying that there seems to have been something of a breakdown in the chain of information exchange that allows us to participate at all in the process, the issue is not so much with this particular vote. From the NISO announcement:

This International Standard specifies the requirements for a generalized exchange format which will hold records describing all forms of material capable of bibliographic description as well as other types of records. This is the fourth edition of the standard and revises the 1996 version. The changes in this revision clarify the use of Unicode with UTF-8 encoding. Prior to this revision, it was equivalent to the NISO standard, Z39.2, Information Interchange Format. NISO has been waiting for this international revision to be completed before reviewing/revising its own standard. This information exchange format standard is considered one of the “critical” standards for library systems.

So, while it’s certainly worth taking a look at what’s going on with this standard from the ISO side, clearly we’ll have another crack at it when NISO attempts to reconcile Z39.2 with the ISO standard, and we can all hope that there’s not disagreement with what ISO has come up with. But I can’t tell, nor can most of you, since getting access to the updated standard coming up for ballot is not simple.

For those of us in the U.S., NISO is where we go to look for important standards, particularly for libraries. Some years ago, when the Internet was taking over from the print supply chain as a basis for discovering and disseminating information of all kinds, NISO took a leap and made their standards available as PDF download, for free. This was pretty gutsy–for one thing it put them in direct competition with themselves, as they had previously depended for income on the sale of printed documents. Now, I don’t know whether or not this has worked out for them financially (they still sell printed versions, but presumably fewer than previously), but we should all be grateful to them for taking a principled risk for openness.

Such has not been the case for ISO (International Standards Organsation). Their standards are not available easily or freely. One is either a recognized part of the standard process (in which case one can securely log in and see work in progress) or one pays for the privilege of downloading a digital version or purchasing a print version of a standard. These standards are not cheap, and as a result are often more widely known about in the abstract than regularly consulted. When this kind of ‘harmonization’ happens and we only get access to the process at a second stage, when critical decisions may already have been made, there’s a basis for concern.

I’m not sure what we can do about it, except be aware and whine when possible. We should also take the opportunity to thank NISO for their willingness to take risks on behalf of an open standards process.

One comment

  1. K.G. Schneider

    Thanks for such a clear and quick discussion of this — and for addressing the broader issue which is that it’s awfully hard to discuss what can’t be widely (easily) read. Yes, NISO deserves a big warm hug for its risk-taking with its publications — and we who benefit from NISO’s work should be careful to not rely on “other people” supporting NISO through memberships, but do so ourselves.

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