Investments in a downturn – why resources invested in standards are needed

As I write this, the markets are heading up (of course, that could certainly change by days end), which is something of an anomaly over the past month.  There was also much talk about library budgets being scaled back in the current environment at the ARL membership meeting that I attended this week.  It seems that most people or organizations are considering ways to scale back their expenditures in some fashion this year.  While this is a challenge we all face, it might appear an odd time to make a pitch for greater investment, but that is what is often needed at times like these.  Where we need to invest our time, energy, and money is in developing efficiencies so that we are all more productive in our work and efficient in doing what we do.   I’ve made the point repeatedly that standards are all about building efficiency.

This was the theme of my opening remarks during the Collaborative Resource Sharing meeting earlier this month.  October 1st was the centennial anniversary of one of the most important and influential standards projects in the history of manufacturing.  That was the date that the first Model T Ford was assembled in Detroit. The manufacture of automobiles in the early 20th century was no breakthrough. The first car (as we know of it today) had been built for commercial sale some 23 years earlier by Karl Benz in 1885. Where Henry Ford was ingenious was in the ability to replicate, improve quality, reduce costs and speed the manufacturing process. And he was able to do this through standardization of the production process. In the next 19 years, Ford would produce some 15 million Model Ts – a feat previously unimaginable. Over the 19 years, the average production was more than 750,000 per year – or more than 2,100 per day. “Sure,” you might say. “Standards in manufacturing make perfect sense. But how does one translate that into libraries? 

In the same way that Ford couldn’t produce ¾ million cars per day without standards, if a library needed to fulfill 750,000 ILL requests per year, there is no way that one could do so without streamlining the process to reduce the transaction costs of each request and fulfillment. According to the most recent ARL statistics from 2005-06, the ARL library processing the most ILL requests, Ohio State University, was the only ARL library with over 200,000 ILL transactions.

Similarly, the management of both physical and digital resources require standards to build efficiencies so that we can do more with less.  The SUSHI standard will allow librarians to reduce the amount of time they invest in gathering usage data for analysis.  The SERU initiative will eliminate the time, energy and expense of negotiating one-off contracts when appropriate.  The Cost of Resources Exchange (CORE) project is aiming to simplify the process of calculating cost-per-use assessment.  And the Institutional Identification (I2) project is working to improve supply chain and distribution efficiencies for publishers and libraries.  There are many other areas where collaboration and standardization can smooth and simplify the flow of information from creators to publishers, through libraries to the end-users.

NISO makes these initiatives happen in our community and engagement in the process is required from all types of organizations.  Even though times are difficult, investing in standards provides real-world, measurable and cost-saving improvements to the process of managing information.  The creation of standards and best practices for the community take time, effort and money.  But we should all remember what the outcomes of these investments can be and how much larger the rewards are than the investments we make in the process.