Letter From the Executive Director (July 2019)

In a couple weeks, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest engineering achievements in human history. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed safely on the surface of the moon. It was the pinnacle event of a multi-year scientific and engineering investment. While Armstrong, Aldrin, and the other astronauts that traveled bravely through space were the public face of the effort, hundreds of thousands of people worked for years to accomplish the goal of sending people to the moon and returning them safely. On this anniversary, there will rightly be much talk of the engineering — the rockets, the materials, and the equipment — and the people who made that historic day happen. What likely won’t be discussed as much is the information management involved in the efforts and the associated explosion of investment in the scientific publication ecosystem that also played a role.

The entire effort was also an enormous exercise in information management and a massive investment in information resourcing. Performance was measured, tested, and compared. Supply chains and manufacturing needed to be streamlined and efficiently managed. In 1968, IBM launched the world’s first commercial database management system. Not surprisingly given its timing and its application, the Apollo 11 mission was one of the first projects in which computerized information management tools were essential to its success. Among its various information management functions, the new database system kept track of the huge manifest of materials for the Saturn V rocket, composed of hundreds of thousands of parts. Although rudimentary by modern standards, the systems laid the groundwork for the information management and computational systems that form the infrastructure of publication, discovery, and interactivity we use every day.

More specific to the world of library and publishing information and standards, according to the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science (vol. 19) entry on the National Science Foundation (NSF), the environment of panic following the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in October 1957 led to a rapid investment by the US Government in science and scientific communications. The National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 was one of the related outcomes. Among the investments launched by the Act was the creation of a Science Information Service within the NSF. Over a period from 1957 to 1964, there was an overall five-fold increase in funding for scientific communications, a nearly seven-fold increase in science publications, and a newly funded support for the science information exchange ecosystem that nearly matched all of the investments made in scientific communication prior to 1957. The $1.3 million investment in the NSF Science Information Services program was roughly equivalent to $10.7 million in today’s dollars, and also doesn’t account for the significantly larger and more complex nature of our current information ecosystem. In particular, Section IX of the 1958 NDEA outlined the goals of the Science Information Service, which were to: (1) provide for “the provision of, indexing, abstracting, translating, and other services leading to a more effective dissemination of scientific information, and (2) undertake programs to develop new or improved methods, including mechanized systems, for making scientific information available.”

It was a result of this scientific energy in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and with the support of the NSF Science Information Service that NFAIS was established and thereafter supported by the NSF. A memorandum from the Eisenhower administration announcing these programs specifically highlighted this goal. Similarly, NSF also supported the expansion of the Committee Z39 of the newly formed American National Standards Institute (ANSI). It is this committee of ANSI that would eventually be formally organized as a separate non-profit, NISO, in 1982.

In some small ways, the development of NFAIS and NISO had the same roots as the most inspirational events of the US space program. It is somewhat fitting, therefore, that on this 50th anniversary of one of the greatest engineering achievements, that NISO and NFAIS should chose this time to come together. Both organizations had direct ties to this period of scientific enthusiasm and the NSF investments at that time, which were instrumental to the formulation of both associations. While NISO’s initial roots predated the space race, our activity levels and investment in our work grew significantly around that time with support from NSF and government investments in scientific information exchange. The modern computer technology we all use to create, manage, and disseminate content also had its origins around this time. In some ways, we are still living off the largesse of that scientific era.

And while the ambitions of the merger between NFAIS and NISO aren’t so grand as landing humans on the face of the moon, we do have grand plans. The newly elected Board of Directors will be meeting for a strategic planning retreat next month to discuss and agree upon a common vision to support the information ecosystem. We will be developing and setting forth a plan for engaging our broader set of members, enhancing thought leadership, driving practical outcomes, and expanding our overall impact. Hopefully, we will contribute to and support the next great scientific advancements, just as we did 50+ years ago.


Todd A. Carpenter
Executive Director, NISO