BackTalk: I Propose a Standards Solution

By Priscilla Caplan

People who care about standards are worried. As a community we're investing heavily in library systems, information systems, and repository systems that require appropriate and robust standards. At the same time, our standards development processes have become increasingly ad hoc, sponsorship is scattered, and mechanisms for ongoing maintenance are often informal and unfunded.

These problems are real, they are international, and they are generating some attention, including NISO's "Blue Ribbon" Panel report and a "standards summit" under the aegis of OCLC, the Research Libraries Group, and Coalition for Networked Information earlier this year. While others are looking at the problem and trying to come up with a solution, I want to start with a solution and see if it fits: I propose a library standards organization.

The trouble with NISO

NISO has historically focused on libraries and the businesses that serve or supply them. Nonetheless, I wouldn't call NISO a library standards organization.

Only about one-quarter of NISO voting members are libraries or library associations. The other 75 percent are vendors, publishers, subscription services, information services, and nonlibrary groups. True, some standards benefiting libraries have to be implemented by other parties, but how do you get a good vote on purely library-related standards when three-quarters of the membership has no interest?

Of the 12 members of the Board of Directors, only two are librarians working in libraries. Perhaps this explains why NISO boards for the last several years have wanted to expand beyond the existing library-centric constituency. In its latest strategic planning effort, the current board identified about a dozen target domains for "strategic partnerships" with NISO, only one of which was libraries. This was justified by the observation that "libraries no longer monopolize the information delivery space as they once did." It is hard to imagine a time when libraries ever monopolized the information delivery space; still, whatever the action is, it is happening someplace else, and that's where NISO wants to be.

Why don't we have our own SDO?

There are roughly 200 ANSI-accredited standards development organizations (SDOs), and nearly all are arms of professional associations. The American Nursery and Landscape Association, National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration all harbor ANSI-accredited SDOs - why not the American Library Association (ALA)?

I see any number of technical standards and best practice guidelines primarily developed by libraries for libraries. Libraries are dominant participants in standards development related to digitization, digital preservation and repository certification, e-resource management, metadata harvesting, performance metrics, and all sorts of metadata (descriptive, technical, structural), among other areas.

An argument is that libraries won't support a library standards organization, the evidence being that so few libraries have joined NISO. Truth be told, its membership application begins, "NISO dues are based on the company's total gross revenues...." Even in these tight budget times, libraries seem willing to pay to belong to organizations that benefit them. Libraries would join a standards organization for benefits like prestige, voting privileges, priority consideration for certain forms of participation, and maybe a few really good meetings.

Why would we want one?

An SDO needs a solid financial footing, and a library SDO funded primarily from within the community has the best prospects for both stable and healthy finances. Make it inexpensive and go for the widest possible membership. Flat annual dues of $4000 for Association of Research Libraries members (all of which, of course, would want to join) and $1000 for everyone else could raise half a million dollars right off the bat. Make ALA and the other big library associations pay a healthy subsidy, which they should have been doing for NISO all along. Get some grants.

A library SDO would be a centripetal force, bringing some order and discipline to the current proliferation of standards efforts. If the library community can shape a library SDO to its own needs, fund it well, and participate actively, then presumably the community should be willing to lend the SDO the authority to be an authority.

What would this organization do? 1) Provide key financial support, process, and infrastructure to independent standards initiatives; 2) assure appropriate participation and vetting by all stakeholders; 3) coordinate training and tool kit development; and critically, 4) establish and support ongoing maintenance of existing standards.

What to do about library automation vendors? What about museums and other types of cultural heritage organizations? Should it be a national or international organization? We have no lack of good minds to work out the details if we knew, as a community, what we wanted.

Author Information
Priscilla Caplan is Assistant Director for Digital Library Services, Florida Center for Library Automation, Gainesville.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing