Magazine article Online

The NISO Common Command Language: No More "German to the Horses." (National Information Standards Organization) (Includes Related Article)

Magazine article Online

The NISO Common Command Language: No More "German to the Horses." (National Information Standards Organization) (Includes Related Article)

Article excerpt

Charles V, called the Wise, supposedly once said, "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse." The man with these remarkable language skills also revitalized the French military during the Hundred Years Wa, r redecorated the Louvre to house his superb library, and restored the dignity of the French monarchy. Not many information professionals can boast of such linguistic prowess nor of such cultural triumphs. These days we are lucky to be able to speak BROWSE to our computer catalogs, SEARCH to our database retrieval systems, and FIND to our compact disks, to say nothing of restoring the glory of the profession.

Since 1980 a subcommittee of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) has been charged with creating a common command language to ease the linguistic problem facing searchers of more than one online system. The Z39G committee, originally chaired by Pauline A. Cochrane, undertook to recommend "terms and abbreviations which would be used in interactive online searching of bibliographic databases in order to reduce the existing diversity in the command languages presently in use." [1] Committee members included representatives from the major online services and database producers, from the developers of the gateways and interfaces that were appearing at the time, and from those who trained users of online systems.

The committee studied the features of the existing online services and drew up an outline of basic functions to be standardized. The appearance of online library catalogs that did not utilize a command language and the surge in personal computer usage caused the committee to pause in its efforts while it studied these new retrieval systems; and the first attempt at a standard command language languished briefly.

In 1984 Charles Hildreth assumed the chairmanship of a newly constituted committee whose membership had broadened to include representatives from online services and database producers, researchers in information technology, representatives of online catalog systems, automation trainers, and library automation consultants. (See the list of committee members and their affiliations in the box with this article.) The membership of the new committee clearly reflected a widening of the original scope beyond commercial bibliographic databanks to embrace the new variety of online information systems. In 1987 NISO sent out for a first ballot the common command language developed by this tenmember group. A second version, incorporating modifications suggested by responses to that first ballot, is currently out for vote to the NISO membership. These votes were due in the late spring of 1989.


The proposed NISO common command language applies to all computer-based interactive information retrieval systems, both online and offline (like CD-ROMs); bibliographic, full-text, numeric, and combinations; command- and menu-driven, in short, to any interactive information retrieval system with which a user communicates with words. It does not apply to database management systems, word processors, spreadsheets, or other systems not designed for information retrieval. It is interesting, however, to note the development of the Structured Query Language (SQL) to ease similar difficulties at the non-retrieval level.

The proposed common command language consists of nineteen commands, along with Boolean, masking, and ranging operators, and a technique for search qualification (Table 1). In developing this language, the committee was guided by four principles:

1) that the language best serve the needs of new and infrequent users

2) that command structures be flexible, but as consistent and predictable as possible

3) that details specific to implementation, such as field labels and display formats, be left to system designers

4) that special characters and punctuation be held to a minimum

The proposed common command language is not a comprehensive set of commands, nor is it meant to be a core or minimal set required of all computer-based retrieval systems. …

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