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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > February 2004
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Vol. 24 No. 2 — February 2004
Coming Full Circle
Bearing with Old and New Standards
by Andrew Pace

I marvel at the screwdriver. The tool, that is, not the drink. I marvel because whenever I use one, I think about the effort it must have taken back in the nascent world of standards to build a device that could be used the world over. No longer would screw and driver be proprietarily paired.

Then I wonder, did Henry Phillips (of screwdriver fame) and Peter Robertson (a little trivia: destined for much less fame than Henry, he invented the socket-head screw) ever go out for drinks and argue the finer points of their inventions? Did they joke about hammer-and-nail users?

"What do they care about standards?" Phillips would muse.

"They get their work done with brute force, and by flooding the market with their cheap and crude solution," Robertson would reply.

Get a life, I know. Nevertheless, I think the cultural history of standards development is somewhat fascinating. Library science is a profession obsessed with standards, but its cultural interaction with them is often quite flaky. Librarians preach and preach the benefits of standards, but sometimes we acquiesce; sometimes we create them in vacuums and hold onto them beyond reason; sometimes we look down our noses at them because no one invited us to the table to develop them.

The Innovator's Dilemma

Sometimes we willingly sacrifice standards for features. The browser wars were the perfect example. Everyone knows that both big browsers (Internet Explorer and Netscape, now the mammoth and the minuscule, respectively) developed features beyond the HTML standard. Should they have waited for the W3C to formalize HTML 2.0 before making tables work? Should they have been so forgiving of sloppy coding? Borrowing Clayton Chistensen's book title,1 one might call this an "innovator's dilemma."

Librarians making their way in the Internet age live constantly on the cutting edge. Those who try to cut a swath through technology often sacrifice standards for innovation.

If we're lucky, a standard will emerge to facilitate whatever it is we're trying to accomplish. OpenURL is an excellent example. This brilliantly simple standard for getting from citations to the full text of articles is the magic bullet librarians have long sought.

Fortunately, stopgap measures were not obviated by the emergence of an acceptable standard. E-journal management systems and purchased aggregated title lists filled the service gap for a while, but OpenURL was a standard way to represent what many were trying to accomplish. Version 1.0, just released, implements many of the innovations that libraries and vendors created on their own after using the 0.1 for almost 3 years. OpenURL succeeded because it did not represent a challenge to existing standards or to years of devotion to an existing system.

Are We Losing Our Grip?

I took a lot of cataloging classes in library school. I wanted to be a rare book cataloger. The book arts actually led me away from cataloging and toward HTML 1.0. I should have been thinking about cataloging as a set of standards, but I never did; they were simply rules. But HTML ... that was a standard to me. Moreover, the dilemma was still there. As a training librarian, I viewed the MARC record as completely monolithic—a beast that was beyond further training. As I learned about Web protocols and relational databases, that 800-pound gorilla was always in the corner of my eye, but I could not determine what to make of it.

Throughout a decade in libraries, I have probably tried to explain the MARC record to about 2 dozen programming, MIS, and computing professionals. Smart people, all of them, but unanimously baffled by the stronghold the MARC record had on the information profession. What's more, I had worked with integrated library systems. I saw the dedicated efforts that went into cataloging modules wasted by ineffective search engines and antiquated indexers, or ignored by minimalist sort, filter, and display options in first-generation online catalogs.

Now before I get piles of hate mail from technical services folks, let me re-emphasize my love of cataloging. But MARC is not cataloging, it's just a standardized format. I don't hate MARC. But lack of proper use of the metadata by indexes and applications, and blind loyalty to a 40-year-old standard can prove infuriating at times, especially when the standard does not do enough to meet the needs of patrons.

Standards Snobs

Librarians should be proud of the MARC record. We deserve to be snobs about standards. We are the leaders of standardized creation, storage, and transfer of descriptive metadata. Yet it seems unrealistic to expect technological advances from IT staff and from automated systems vendors while demanding adherence to and promoting longevity of aging standards. There is likely some middle ground between preserving our past and bearing (and bearing with) the standards of the future.


The Z39.50 standard presents even bigger challenges. While it remains the best way to broadcast searches for bibliographic data, its use as a standard for metasearching disparate information resources presents insurmountable problems. Even information vendors who have run Z39.50 servers for years never planned for the impact of metasearch engines. For others, CGI access to their data was enough of a challenge; the notion of implementing a Z39.50 server for access to citation data or proprietary data sets is too high a barrier of entry. There are new challenges (as well as revenue opportunities) for software developers and content providers. As with OpenURL, libraries, content providers, and software vendors all share a common interest; the opportunity for cooperative development of a new standard is excellent.

Standards Renaissance

If we think of our 40-year trek through the standards circuit as ending now, then our second time around this circle represents a real chance to do things better. Librarians are desperate for better standards to support their core functionality and day-to-day activities—NCIP for patron data, COUNTER for statistics, EDItEUR for acquisitions, OpenURL for citation linking, and something for metasearch, just to name a few. Vendors are equally anxious to provide services that adhere to desired standards, especially in a technological climate that emphasizes interoperability and distributed systems. Not to worry, a new era of cooperation and co-development is at hand.

No one can take more credit for this new era than NISO, the National Information Standards Organization ( Beyond promoting standards development by singularly interested parties, NISO has fostered cooperative efforts among wider ranges of stakeholders, including content providers, vendors, middleware developers, and librarians. NISO has a stake in nearly every standard mentioned in this issue.

One of NISO's most interesting tactics has been to couple grass-roots efforts at standards development with top-down analysis of business functions. The metasearch initiative is an excellent example. Several interested parties met in Denver in early 2003 to brainstorm and determine the issues surrounding federated search, resource discovery, and authentication. That meeting was followed up last fall by a NISO workshop with an even wider audience of librarians, vendors, and publishers. Work continues—via its "Metasearch Initiative," NISO is capturing the momentum created by those meetings, the press that followed, and community reaction.

One of my favorite sayings is: "When all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail." Our profession has plenty of hammers and brute force opportunities to build the things that we need. MARC is a hammer; stand-alone development done in a vacuum is a brute force strategy. Our profession needs more screwdrivers.


1. The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Clayton M. Christensen, Harvard University Press, 1997.


Andrew K. Pace is head of the systems department at North Carolina State University Libraries. His e-mail address is You can also reach him through his Web site at
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