Magazine article Computers in Libraries

'Standard' Issue: Defining Standards and Protocols

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

'Standard' Issue: Defining Standards and Protocols

Article excerpt

I seem to recall a time when protocols and standards were two different things. In the past couple of years, the craze over new protocols has seemingly breathed new life into library information technology, replacing the doldrums of standards with the hope of new, universally accepted protocols. I must admit to being too young to have been there, but I wonder if things felt like this when MARC and 239.50 were poised to change the world of library automation. MARC and 239.50? Ugh ... so 5 minutes ago; where have you been? It's XML and OpenURL, and the Open Archives Initiative. Not only that, we'll do it all in Open Source! This profession is a sucker for the word "open." Where did all this openness come from, and what happened to standards?

Libraries' Lower Standards

Maybe it was the fear surrounding another 20-year adoption cycle, a la Z39.50, or the fact that only a librarian could really appreciate the intricacy and art form that is the MARC record. Whatever the cause, many librarians have dropped their stalwart allegiance to old standards in favor of new protocols. Of course, we placate ourselves with rounds of back-patting, reminding each other ad nauseam that XML is just dumbed-down MARC, or laughing at stories of the latest dot-com customer service desks as they discover what we have always known as the reference interview. (Actually, what's remarkable is that we make these comments within our own circles, but still invite outside experts to our conferences in hopes of learning something from them when they often have more to learn from us. But I digress.)

I mentioned that protocols and standards used to be two different things, albeit related. They also used to mean different things and have different purposes than they do now. For example, a protocol used to simply be the technical or analog rules used to complete a transaction. We can see how a protocol (whose traditional definition is a rough draft or an unratified convention) was something just short of a standard. Now, protocols, especially technical protocols, are ways around standards. Anyone with a little HTML knowledge and a book on Perl coding can create a Web protocol.

Standards are another story. The term "standard" itself has become so confused that we now have to call most of them "open standards." I think we can thank Microsoft and Apple for introducing two of the very first so-called "proprietary standards," one of IT's greatest oxymorons; that is, a protocol or file system that is so widely adopted as to be standard, but without the open specifications that make it a truly open standard. You often hear Adobe's PDF described as a proprietary standard. So a proprietary standard is essentially a closed standard, which is no standard at all. Make sense? No wonder protocol sounds better. And hence the profession's first embrace of open-ness-we like open books, open meetings, and open library doors. Who has time for closed standards? And yet libraries continually embrace proprietary standards every time they sign a new service contract with an online publisher, a database vendor, or an integrated library system company.

Higher Expectations

The struggle over standards and protocols is easily seen in the paradoxical relationship between library vendors and their customers. Libraries want vendor adherence to standards to be so strict, so open, and so well-documented as to make the distinctions between one vendor and another nearly invisible. Vendors, on the other hand, want to distinguish themselves from one another and capture market share among a relatively fixed customer base. Vendors have traditionally mollified libraries by embracing standards like MARC, HTML, and 239.50, usually with their own proprietary twists. Or (in the case of some IS vendors), they keep libraries coming back for more enhancements with half-baked versions of EDI (Electronic Data Interchange), ILL (Interlibrary Loan), and SIP/NCIP (Standard Interchange Protocol/NISO Circulation Interchange Protocol) standards. …

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