9 Ways that librarians can support standards adoption

Last week, I was at the Electronic Resources in Libraries conference in Austin, Texas.  This is the fifth meeting of ER&L and the meeting has grown tremendously, becoming an important destination for librarians and publishers focused on electronic content.  There is a growing energy around this conference that reminds me a lot of the Charleston conference back in the 1990s–or perhaps earlier, but that’s when I first attended Charleston.  The organizer of the meeting, Bonnie Tijerina, Electronic Resources Librarian at the UCLA Library, is full of drive and energy, and will I expect continue to be a force in the library community for many years to come.  So too are the team of people who stand with Bonnie in making this entire project happen, most of whom wandered about the meeting in t-shirts emblazoned with a welcoming and helpful Texas “Howdee!” in large letters across the chest.

Generally, a relaxed meeting with a capped attendance of ~350 people and a tight schedule of only a few competing sessions, ER&L also involves a lot of participant engagement.  Participants are encouraged to contribute to the conversation via the conference wiki and blog.  Also, the first day included a lightening talk opportunity for anyone to take the stage for five minutes to discuss whatever project they wanted to share.

I took the opportunity to stand up and discuss briefly an important issue for the library community: the adoption of standards by vendors and publishers.  There is often a chicken and egg problem with the development of systems interoperability standards.  When two parties need to exchange data, both sides of that exchange need to see the value of investing in implementation.  Implementation has to serve the interest of both communities.  In the case of library systems, the interests of the library staff are usually tied to improving end-user access, reducing data entry, more efficient services or better analysis.  For the vendor, this might include simply better customer service and keeping current customers happy, building in response to RFP requests, or possibly a competitive advantage over other systems offerings.  The problem is that in an era when development resources are tight–and they are always tight, only more so now–developing interchange functionality to make the system the supplier has developed work with another system (which was generally not developed by the same supplier) doesn’t often compete well in the list of development priorities.

How can the library community engage to help this situation?  During my brief talk at ER&L I listed a few ways that librarians can encourage adoption of technical standards by their vendors, such as systems suppliers and publishers:

1) Educate yourself about the different initiatives that are ongoing in the community. NISO offers a series of educational events throughout the year, ranging from webinars to in-person events.  Also, many of these events are free, such as the Changing Standards Landscape Forum at ALA and the monthly Open Teleconference Series.  Subscribing to NISO’s free Newsline or our magazine, ISQ are also ways to keep abreast of the work ongoing at NISO and elsewhere in the community.

2) Build compliance language into your RFPs and contracts.  A customer never has more power over the vendor than right before she/he is about to purchase something.  While price is often the first thing people think about when negotiating a contract for a system, there are other important elements tied to service levels that should also be considered.    Does the system conform with existing standards — and what exactly is meant by “conformance”.  Conformance can mean different things to different organizations.  Be as clear as you can be about what your needs are from the outset can avoid problems later.  NISO will be updating the NISO RFP Guide later this spring, which will help in this process.

3) Regularly speak with the product managers or account executives at your suppliers.  The product managers are there to provide input and feedback to their development teams.  Usually, they are a solid source for the company about customer needs and expectations.  They can often advocate for your needs within the company.  However, you need to be realistic about what they can achieve, which is why #8 below is an important channel too!

4) Participate in user group meetings and discussion groups:  Every successful company will reach out to its customers for feedback and input, especially when new products, services or platform upgrades are under consideration.  Be mindful of exactly what your needs and concerns are.  This is where your work on Education point #1 above) can be so valuable.

5) Serve on Library Advisory Boards: Most publishers and systems vendors have advisory boards of librarians who provide regular feedback about community conditions and development needs.

6) Open Source Development – A variety of libraries are working on development of new systems and services using Open Source tools and methods.  Building in interoperability standards into these systems is a great way to leverage communities to push adoption by proprietary vendors, which often require interoperability with proprietary systems for them to work properly.  In addition, Open Source provides a public forum for the testing and improvement of existing standards.

7) Find out if your suppliers are engaging in standards development work.  All of the rosters of NISO working groups are available online.  Look through them and see which of your suppliers is participating.  If you find a group that you feel would benefit your library, reach out to your suppliers.  Press them to engage if they are not.

8 ) Go to the top – Contacting the executive leadership at supplier companies is a great way to get action on your needs.  Often, the product managers don’t control the development pipeline at an organization—although they are useful as a first and regular point of contact (see #4 above).  The executives can often control a wide variety of resources to get a project moving forward, if you can convince them it is valuable to their customers.  Reaching to the executives is never a bad idea and can usually bring results if your requests are focused and actionable.

9) Get involved yourself. – There are many ways that you can engage in standards and best practice works.  You can engage directly with NISO or via any of the variety of mirror groups that exist as part of ALA, ARL, LITA, NFAIS, SLA or MLA.  In addition to building your own skills, you will be able to speak more authoritatively about your needs, the more engaged you are.  Also, it provides you an opportunity for your needs to be built in to the standards or best practices from the outset. You will be amazed at how similar the issues you face are with others in the community.