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When is a new thing a new thing?

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

I recently gave a presentation at the National Central Library in Taiwan at a symposium on digital publishing and international standards that they hosted. It was a tremendous meeting and I am grateful to my hosts, Director General Karl Min Ku and his staff for a terrific visit.  One of the topics that I discussed was the issue of the identification of ebooks. This is increasingly becoming an important issue in our community and I am serving on a BISG Working Group to explore thes issues. Below are some notes from one slide that I gave during that presentation, which covers one of the core questions: At what point do changes in a digital file qualify it as a new product?  The full slide deck is here. I’ll be expanding on these ideas in other forums in the near future, but here are some initial thoughts on this question.

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In a print world, what made one item different from another was generally it’s physical form. Was the binding hardcover or soft-cover? Was the type regular or large-size for the visually impaired, or even was it printed using Braille instead of ink? Was the item a book or a reading of the book, i.e. an audio book, was about as far afield as the form question had gone prior to the rise of the internet in the mid 1990s. In a digital environment, what constitutes a new item is considerably more complex. This poses tremendous issues regarding the supply chain, identification, and collections management in libraries.

This is a list of some of the defining characteristics for a digital text that are distinct from those in a print environment.  Each poses a unique challenge to the management and identification of digital items.

  • Encoding structure possibilities (file formats)
  • Platform dependencies (different devices)
  • Reflowable (resize)
  • Mutable (easily changed/updated)
  • Chunked (the entire item or only elements)
  • Networkable (location isn’t applicable)
  • Actionable/interactive
  • Linkable (to other content)
  • Transformable (text to speech)
  • Multimedia capable
  • Extensible (not constrained by page)
  • Operate under license terms (not copyright)
  • Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Just some of these examples pose tremendous issues for the supply chain of ebooks when it comes to fitting our current business practices, such as ISBN into this environment.

One question is whether the form of the ebook which needs a new identifier is the file format. If the publisher is distributing a single file format, say an epub file, but then in order for that item go get displayed onto a Kindle, it needs to be transformed into a different file format, that of the Kindle, at what point does the transformation of that file become a new thing? Similarly, if you wrap that same epub file with a specific form of digital rights management, does that create a new thing? From an end-user perspective, the existence and type of DRM could render a file as useless to the users as it would be if you supplied a Braille version to someone who can’t read Braille.

To take another, even thornier question, let’s consider location. What does location mean in a network environment. While I was in Taiwan, if I wanted to buy a book using my Kindle from there, where “am I” and where is the transaction taking place? Now in the supply chain, this makes a tremendous amount of difference. A book in Taiwan likely has a different ISBN number, assigned to a different publishers, because the original publisher might not have worldwide distribution rights. The price might be different, even the content of the book might be slightly different-based on cultural or legal sensitivities. But while I may have been physically located in Taiwan, my Amazon account is based in Maryland, where I live and where my Kindle is registered. Will Amazon recognize me as the account holder in the US or the fact of my present physical location in Taiwan, despite the fact that I traveled back home a week later and live in the US? Now, this isn’t even considering where the actual transaction is taking place, which could be a server farm somewhere in California, Iceland or Tokyo.  The complexity and potential challenges for rights holders and rights management could be tremendous.

These questions about when is a new thing a new thing are critically important question in the identification of objects and the registration and systems that underlie them. How we manage this information and the decisions we take now about what is important, what we should track, and how should we distinguish between these items will have profound impacts on how we distribute information decades into the future.

The el-dente style of standards

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Although outside of NISO’s normal remit, I thought I’d provide some interesting fun for a rainy fall Monday.  ISO has just announced the publication of a standard on “state of the art” cooking of pasta.  From the release:

ISO 7304-2:2008 – Alimentary pasta produced from durum wheat semolina – Estimation of cooking quality by sensory analysis – Part 2: Routine methoddescribes a test method for laboratories to determine a minimum of cooking time for pasta.” “This International Standard specifies a method for assessing, by sensory analysis, the quality of cooked alimentary pasta in the form of long, solid strands (e.g. spaghetti) or short, hollow strands (e.g. macaroni) produced from durum wheat semolina, expressed in terms of the starch release, liveliness and firmness characteristics (i.e. texture) of the pasta.”

I know at least one of my college roommates who could have benefited from the advice this standard could provide.  I am sure that the development of this standards was … tasty.

ISO names Robert Steele as new Secretary General

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

ISO has announced the appointment of a new Secretary General.  Below is the press release we received. 

ISO PRESS RELEASE / COMMUNIQUE DE PRESSE DE L’ISO (VERSION FRANCAISE CI-APRES) 

New ISO Secretary-General as of 1 January 2009

ISO (International Organization for Standardization) will have a new Secretary-General from 1 January 2009. He is Mr. Robert Steele who was appointed by the ISO Council at its meeting in Dubai on 17 October 2008, following the 31st ISO General Assembly.

Last March, the ISO Council initiated the process to select a new Secretary-General for the organization after the current Secretary-General, Mr. Alan Bryden, indicated that he was at the Council’s disposal to enable a smooth transition to a successor so that the latter would be in office from the launching next year of the consultations relating to the new ISO Strategic Plan.

MORE: http://www.iso.org/iso/pressrelease.htm?refid=Ref1168