Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Super Standards and Substandard Standards

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Super Standards and Substandard Standards

Article excerpt

Last month I wrote about the problems with managing instant access to diverse files and file formats, and mentioned a few standards being used to improve file "packaging." It's a huge problem, and one to keep your eye on, because it will become more important the older our data gets. Mixed up in all of this is the story of standards, and much like with dental floss and automated off-site backups, thinking about and using standards isn't exactly a lot of fun. Sometimes you might want to kick yourself for not using standards, and other times you'll sure be glad you did.

Standards and their applications are all around us, more than you might think. In libraries, we have standards for metadata, search protocols, invoicing and payments, and resource sharing, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. These days we don't often think about the library hand, ALA forms for interlibrary loan, or the ALA character set. Below the surface of these standards past and present, and a dozen other categories of standards applicable to libraries, are hundreds of other standards: The shape of an electrical plug and the current flowing through the wires, the amount of water used to flush a toilet and the shape and size of sewage pipe fittings, and building codes for safety and efficiency are all critical to constructing and maintaining our library facilities.

Look at any computer and you will notice hardware standards for connecting peripheral devices, the layout of the keyboard, and the aspect ratio of the screen. Operating systems use standards to regulate communication between system components, programs and the kernel, and devices on the network. Applications make use of all these and use their own standards for instant messaging, typefaces, and file names. If you really want to blow your mind, think what life would be like without standards for time, weights and measures, currency, and human language. But let's not blow our minds just yet.

Lessons Learned from HL7

Let's stay focused on the here, the now, and the libraries in computers to come. It's an obvious question to ask: What standards would we need to use to integrate diverse items from an array of users and their machines into an instantaneous library? There are plenty to choose from, and there's always the option of writing our own. How do we choose from among the most hyped new specs and the venerable stalwarts?

In the mid-1990s, I was involved with the development of a widely used healthcare data exchange standard called HL7 (Health Level Seven). My time working on HL7 was brief, but I learned a lot about how standards work, and how they change over time. At my first HL7 meeting, I found that there was a group of participants interested in using SGML as a document and data standard for HL7, which had until then had its own unique syntax or "wire format" (the format of data sent over the wire). We agreed that there was enough interest in moving forward with this to meet again.

At the next HL7 meeting, my second, Tim Bray gave a keynote on the new work he was leading to define the XML standard. I'm sure that this was the first time that most of us in attendance had heard of XML, but those of us already gathered to talk about SGML knew that XML would be big. Within a few years, and after a lot of hard work by many capable people, HL7 had changed to make extensive use of XML.

I took several lessons from this experience. One was that at the very moment a group formed to look at using SGML, XML appeared and made our job easier. We knew SGML was difficult to understand, and this made it a hard sell. But we knew that SGML had great potential, and among the group assembled were people with wide-ranging experiences and skills who had reached a similar conclusion. The people behind XML knew SGML's potential well and knew that for people like us to realize that potential, we needed a newer, better standard that offered the benefits of SGML but in a substantially easier package. …

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