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The NISO Framework for Understanding Standards

The NISO Framework for Understanding Standards

April 2007

“The world makes way for the [person] who knows where he is going.” 
– Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Over the past two decades, dissemination of electronic information and the widespread adoption of management systems for both print and electronic resources have resulted in shifting roles for publishers, libraries, and automation vendors. The growing significance of these changes was one of the reasons that NISO undertook a strategic assessment in 2004-2005 and began adjusting its activities to address this new and changing environment.

NISO began its strategic restructuring by gathering some of the key thought leaders in the community on to a Blue Ribbon panel. Led by Clifford Lynch, Executive Director of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) and funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, this panel examined NISO’s role in the community, both what it was and what it should be. The report1 the group produced highlights many of the key issues that NISO was facing: the need for NISO to address infrastructure and support issues, and the imperative of setting a clear vision of our community and the organization’s future directions. Two of the key recommendations of this group were that NISO needed to better define the community that NISO serves and to lay out a framework of the standards universe in which our organization operates.

NISO has a long history of working with a diversity of participants engaged in information exchange. With a focus on how NISO perceives the environment that encompasses our work, the Board revised its constituency statement: 

NISO engages libraries, publishers, information aggregators and other organizations that support learning, research and scholarship by creating, organizing, managing and curating knowledge. NISO recognizes that it must engage this full range of providers as digital information is fungible and so standards must be broadly adopted to be optimally useful. It must also engage communities like e-learning who make information available as part of their service offering. Only this broad level engagement will allow NISO to fulfill its mission statement. 

While this may seem broad in scope, it is actually an acknowledgment of the situation on the ground, so to speak. While there has long been a focus on the library community as key members of the NISO constituency, libraries act more as a keystone of a much broader community that is facilitating the creation, duration, and delivery of research and scholarship. 

Inherent in this constituency statement is also an understanding of the flexible nature of the roles of the various players in this process. The traditional organizational roles have shifted. Digitization and institutional repository projects are moving publication and distribution operations into libraries. Much of the bibliographic tagging (now metadata creation) is conducted earlier in the content creation process. Similarly, social tagging has added a further level of metadata management issues. As digital information is more often leased than sold, some of the responsibilities of preservation, management, and curation of data are now shifting to the publishers of this information. The community can expect to see further adjustment of responsibilities as technologies develop and change, allowing greater flexibility by organizations to engage in new activities.

For this reason, the Framework that NISO has developed is not focused on traditional roles and firm descriptions of organizations engaged in the process, but is a more general approach which focuses on the functional roles that standards fill in the dissemination of information, the object to which the standard relates, and who the standards affect at different stages of the distribution chain. In this approach, we can more easily define the aspects of information exchange that are most relevant to NISO and its constituency, thereby focusing our attention and resources where they are most needed. 

The Framework that the Blue Ribbon Panel described was to provide an overarching structure for how NISO describes and envisions itself interacting with the community. Quoting from the Panel’s report, NISO needed to: 

Develop a well-synthesized framework that looks at the needs and priorities of [NISO’s] constituency, the technical standards landscape relevant to that constituency, and the ecology of other standards-related organizations relevant to that constituency. From this will follow a roadmap and priorities for standards development and for partnerships, collaborations, and other relationships with other players. 

Taking this advice, the Board incorporated such a Framework in the strategic plan2, adopted by the Board of directors in June of 2005: 

NISO will maintain a strategic map of the information landscape that pinpoints features of the landscape most critical for the creation, persistent management and exchange of trusted information in support of research and learning. Decisions about which standards initiatives to invest in will be made with reference to this strategic map, and with a view of NISO’s mission, its members’ interests, and an awareness of those areas where NISO brings a unique perspective to the problem area. NISO will be guided by its mission and the strategic map while moving into new areas of activity and when making life cycle decisions about standards the organization may want to divest itself of.

In its Strategic Directions document, the Board acknowledged that the landscape in which NISO operates is continuing to change rapidly. The mission statement calls for NISO to continue to develop standards that enhance the effectiveness of the value chain that supports the creation, persistent management, and effective interchange of information so that it can be trusted for use in research and learning. The Board understands that NISO must develop and maintain a comprehensive and comprehensible view of that value chain in order to fulfill its mission. 

To that end, the NISO Board formed a Task Force to develop a Framework for its standards work. The committee was charged with the following tasks: 

Describe at a high-level the value chain that supports the creation, exchange and use of information (formal documentation) used in research and learning today with pointers to changes that are likely to occur in the near term. This description will include a graphical representation of that value chain and include descriptions of key roles, organizations, and points of exchange. Identify areas where NISO could establish standing working groups that would maintain an ongoing standards agenda. For each area, identify the central issues and the partners to engage in developing that agenda. 

The Framework Committee consisted of Lorcan Dempsey (OCLC), Bruce Rosenblum (Inera, Inc.), Robin Murray (OCLC PICA), Oliver Pesch (EBSCO Information Services), Dan Greenstein (California Digital Library), and Pat Stevens (an independent consultant and, formerly, NISO’s Interim Executive Director). The group described the different models for consensus that are used in standards development and addressed what types of consensus products that NISO could create. They then described the information environment in which NISO manages standards development. The group then went through a descriptive analysis of our current standards portfolio, mapping that work into the Framework. 

The Framework Committee’s work has since been taken up by the newly formed Architecture Committee led by Chuck Koscher (CrossRef), a member of NISO’s Board of Directors. That group will continue to assess the underlying assumptions in the Framework, analyze how the work of other standards development organizations fits into the Framework, and into which areas it might be appropriate for NISO to expand its work. The Architecture Committee will also oversee the work of the Topic Committees, which are being organized to oversee specific portfolios of standards. The NISO Framework defines those portfolios by the functional groupings of standards and provides a basis for the development and management of those portfolios. 

Models for Consensus 

According to the ISO/IEC definition, a “standard is a document, established by consensus that provides rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results” (ISO/IEC Guide 2:1996). Standards and specification development organizations are referred to as SDOs. In addition to standards, these SDOs develop other forms of consensus documents, including best/recommended practices, open source protocols, and de facto standardized tools and specifications. 

From the most formal to the least, these consensus forms include: 

  1. De jure, formal standards that are the work of accredited standards bodies such as NISO, IEEE, AIIM, and ARMA. In the United States, such standards bodies are accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The main standards body in the international arena is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
  2. Standards produced by independent specification/ standards consortia, such as the W3C, IETF, OASIS, and the IMS Global Learning Consortium.
  3. De facto standards, usually developed by organizations that are not SDOs or even by individuals. These specifications become “standards” by their popular implementation and dominance in the marketplace. The NLM DTD is an example of one such de facto standard in the NISO community. In some cases, a de facto standard is later legitimized by an SDO and becomes a de jure standard. 

Originally established as committee Z39 of the American Standards Association (ANSI’s former name), NISO has been the ANSI-accredited standards development organization in the area of libraries, documentation, and publishing for nearly 70 years. Within the scope of ANSI participation, NISO’s goal is: to develop voluntary, consensus technical standards relevant to information systems; products, including hardware and supplies; and services, as they relate to libraries, bibliographic and information services, and publishing. NISO also serves as the United States Technical Advisory Group to ISO Technical Committee (TC) 46 – Information and documentation. It is through NISO’s involvement in ISO TC46 that our community participates in international standards development. These established paths, through ANSI and ISO, to de jure standards is and will remain a cornerstone of NISO’s activities. 

While NISO will continue to produce formal standards, its future activities will not be limited to producing only de jure standards. Many areas of NISO’s current work are possibly too nascent to be ready for such formalization, which when done too early could lead to a lack of adoption or an inhibition of innovation. 

NISO will be placing additional emphasis in the coming months and years on less formal consensus and non-consensus outcomes such as: 

  • Recommended or best practice documents
  • Research or technical reports
  • Schema and DTD formats
  • Registries
  • Vocabulary, data, or format dictionaries
  • Web services
  • White papers or longer compilations of analysis

Building these other forms into NISO’s standards development program will provide the community with an expanded forum for addressing issues. Additionally, other less formal documents can be completed much more rapidly, helping to propel innovation in areas where technologies or practices are still developing and providing an opportunity to test and improve practices before they are broadly adopted or formally elevated to de jure status. 

NISO has already begun moving in this direction. In 2006 a new Recommended Practice series was launched. The Standardized Usage Statistics Harvesting Initiative (SUSHI) started as an ad hoc group and then moved though a trial use period to a balloted de jure standard. The recently launched Simplified E-Resource Understanding (SERU) project is developing a recommended practice to substitute for formal contracts and licenses for digital resources. Another model of consensus that is in development is a restructuring of the Framework for Building Good Digital Collections, which is funded in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). This project will result in a living web-based document, providing continually updated information and an opportunity for ongoing community feedback in a Web 2.0 social environment. 

Classification of NISO’s Standards 

The NISO Framework utilizes a three dimensional structure to categorize the different types of information standards-related activities in which people, organizations, and objects (digital and physical) are connected and interact. It is intended both to help the community understand the landscape in which NISO operates and for NISO to prioritize and align its work with the larger information community. The NISO Strategic Framework Committee defined three categories along related axes: EntitiesServices, and Activities. These are functional categories in that they indicate the problems standards address and the services standards support, as well as describe the context of the standards and which aspects of the information chain are engaged in applying them. 

Each standard can be classified according to these attributes: 

Entities: Individuals and organizations, either physical or virtual, that provide or use information services or the objects upon which such services act. Entities are classified as People, Organizations, Information Objects, or Collections. 

Services: The general area of information service that describes the stage in the chain of dissemination. Services are classified as Discovery to Delivery, Repository, Space, Business Intelligence, or Management. 

Activity: The role that a standard plays in affecting entities or facilitating services. Activities are classified into Identification, Format, Transaction, and Policy. 

A useful perspective in considering this structure is to look at Entities as nouns in a sentence, Services as the verbs, and Activities as the “how” (adjective, adverb, etc.) of the interaction. A standard’s Activity explains how someone or something performs a specific activity within the scope of trying to accomplish a particular goal. 

We can see how this classification structure is applied by taking SUSHI (Standardized Usage Statistics Harvesting Initiative) as an example. SUSHI is a new standard that will automate the electronic exchange of usage data between publisher and library systems. In the case of SUSHI, publishers and libraries are Entities that are exchanging business information. The gathering, storage, and analysis of usage data is broadly defined in the structure as a Business Intelligence Service. And the standard’s Activity is as a transaction protocol for how the systems interact to exchange the information. 

The broad Framework provides the superstructure upon which more detail can be built. There are different types of Entities, Services, and Activities engaged with standards. Defining and limiting NISO’s scope within these categories will outline the direction for our activities and our interactions with other standards developing organizations in the community. 

For each of the functional categories, the NISO Strategic Framework Committee developed a taxonomy to further define these objects of interaction. 


  • People: Individuals who create, use, or provide information services. This type of entity may be described by a common role or characteristic, e.g., librarians, students, researchers, authors, or editors.
  • Organizations: Organizations or legal entities that use, create, or distribute information services. These organizations may be described by a common role or characteristic, e.g., libraries, publishers, agents, jobbers, or universities. Organizations may be formal or informal and may be physical or virtual. Some organizations may play different roles at different points during the content creation and distribution process and it is the context of their work at that stage that defines their organization type. For example, a library may digitize materials and thereby create content and as such be considered a publisher.
  • Information Objects: Objects upon which services act, e.g., books, data, metadata, holdings, policies, and licenses. These objects may be primary or secondary.
  • Service: A discrete piece of functionality potentially available as a network endpoint, e.g., a search service or repository service.
  • Collections: Formal or transient aggregations of information objects intentionally created for a community or purpose.

Service Areas 

  • Discovery to Delivery: Services invoked in the process of connecting users to relevant resources, e.g., search, display of results sets, resolution of identifiers, transforming objects into delivery formats, and delivery to an end user.
  • Repository: Services used to select, organize, and provide access to information objects, e.g., metadata schema, cataloging, concept mapping, and preservation.
  • Space: Services that connect people to people or that traditionally have been obtained from professional service providers, e.g., virtual reference desks, collaborative environments, social bookmarking, and “Ask an Expert.”
  • Business Intelligence: Services that provide and analyze data about the operation and behavior of an information environment and its users, e.g., reports of data on the number of metadata records that are well formed, that analyze usage patterns, or that provide statistics about web referral paths and web metrics.
  • Management: Services that set policy and regulate how other services are provided, e.g., software engineering procedures and quality of service metrics. Process and quality standards often support management services. A data encryption standard might fall in this category if it spoke to the strength of the encryption, whereas if it were viewed as providing a means for encryption it would be classified according to its application, e.g., Network).
  • Network: Services that are needed to build other services and applications in a networked environment, e.g., e-commerce services, directories, registries, authentication, and authorization.
  • Environment: Services used to create and add value to end user environments and products, such as search engines, virtual learning environments, RSS aggregators, portals, e-portfolios, and scholarly publications.


  • Identification: Enables people and organizations to distinguish entities and services from one another.
  • Formation: Provides a means for formatting data and constructing records for interchange and use by entities and services. Data models typically fall under this classification.
  • Transaction: Allows for the exchange of data and the request or provision of services. Protocols, APIs, and other mechanisms for exchanging data and interoperating typically fall under this classification.
  • Policy: Describes the business rules for the exchange, management, and specification of the characteristics of entities and services in an information environment. Profiles and reference models such as the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) and the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) Reference Model typically support policy activities, whereas the component standards they reference typically support identification, format, or transaction.

Each of NISO’s standards can be grouped according to this taxonomic framework. Much of what has been the past focus of NISO’s standards program has generally fallen into the Repository Service Area and relate to the Entity of Information Objects. As digital distribution of information has grown, new standards in the areas of Discovery & Delivery have become increasingly important. 

One example of how this taxonomic structure works is the ISSN—ANSI/NISO Z39.9-1992 (R2001), International Standard Serial Numbering (ISSN). This familiar standard identifies serial publications. As it relates to information objects (i.e., a journal), this is the entity. The number is primarily used for selecting and organizing journals and increasingly journal content and is therefore related to the Repository Service area. Finally, the purpose of the standard is the identification of the object, so this falls into the Identification aspect of Activities.  

Obviously, within this Framework there are overlaps with other standards bodies’ activities. By building a framework that is focused on the role standards play in the exchange of scholarly information, we can more easily identify those standards areas or community segments where collaboration is the most effective path to pursue standards development. Similarly, the Framework helps to identify gaps and areas where no significant work is taking place by any organized standards organization. There may be opportunity in those areas for NISO to engage participants in the affected sectors to address the gaps or to formalize ad hoc activities. 

Two specific areas in which NISO is not currently undertaking any standards activities relate to the Network and Environment Service areas. Some standards in these areas that NISO has not been engaged in, but which do significantly affect our community, are authentication and electronic learning systems. That is not to say that these areas are without standardization initiatives or leadership communities. The key to applying the Framework will be to understand what is being undertaken in these spaces and to what extent NISO and its constituency will be impacted by work in those areas. Such understanding will guide NISO in determining what, if any, resources should be directed to engaging and influencing the work underway on those topics. Using the authentication example, it is conceivable that a trust structure like Shibboleth might be an area where NISO and its constituency could play a role, for example, in expanding the functionality of Shibboleth in a metasearch environment. 

Contrasting examples are network protocols and RSS feeds. While there is broad use and reliance on these standards in our community, falling into the Network area of NISO’s Framework, these are well managed by other communities and, even though our community
does play a role in those activities, they are identified as outside of NISO’s scope. Similarly, organizations such as IMS Global are  developing standards in the e-learning environment space and, while they interact with NISO standards, the community is not well served by duplication of standards activities. There may be areas where a collaborative partnership in standards development might be warranted, perhaps relating to how publisher or library materials are incorporated in e-learning systems.

The Changing Shape of the Information World 

The organizations and people that undertake all of these activities play a critical role in the process of developing standards. These organizations are rapidly undergoing change. Few organizations are focused solely on one stage of this value-creation chain. Typically, an organization or various arms of a large organization are engaged in different Service Areas or Activities affected by standards. Long gone are the days that institutions are solely devoted to one aspect of collecting, storing, or delivering information. 

In addition to this expansion of roles, there is an increasing interdependence between organizations on each other’s contributions to the chain of information. Movement of digital information often entails the movement of critical bibliographic and metadata information about the object, as well as related data on rights, sales, licensing, authentication, etc., that facilitate exchange of the information object. 

The Future of NISO Guided by the Framework 

Obviously, this Framework is broad enough that it extends well beyond NISO’s current sphere of influence. There are many areas in discovery, preservation, formatting, and identification that are firmly set within other standards bodies and communities. The Framework Committee that developed this work focused solely on the identification and classification of NISO’s standards against the Framework model. They did not address the larger issues of what other organizations and standards exist, where they fit into this model, and what areas beyond NISO’s current standards portfolio should be explored. 

As part of NISO’s new organizational structure, the Architecture Committee is tasked with maintaining this Framework and addressing the issue of NISO’s interaction with other communities and standards bodies. In the coming months and years, the Architecture Committee will gather information about standards work that intersects with NISO’s interest areas and address any overlap or identify gaps that represent opportunities for NISO. In some cases, it might make sense for NISO to initiate work in a particular functional area defined by the Framework where other organizations are not currently focused and where our community perceives a need. In other areas, partnering with other standards bodies might be deemed most appropriate. Finally, there may be areas where the Committee and the Board of Directors decides that it is not appropriate for NISO to continue pursuing. 

With a topographical map of the standards landscape NISO participates in, NISO is in a better position to prioritize and allocate its limited resources in standards development. 



1) Report of the NISO “Blue Ribbon” Strategic Planning Panel, May 3, 2005. 
2) NISO Strategic Direction, June 20, 2005.