Letter from the Executive Director (October 2019)

Publishers have invested tremendous resources over the years in the craft of producing content. It is lovely to encounter the occasional book that provides a page describing the typeface selected for the text. The care and thought that goes into such decisions is often lost on readers if attention isn’t drawn directly to it. Even without such a reference, there can be a feeling, an impression, left by design decisions that can impact the reading experience.  A sense of time, of place, or character can be conveyed by design decisions, such as typeface, paper selection, or bindings.  These subtle quality markers may not have the same impact as they had decades ago, but they still exist if you keep an eye out for them. Depending on the publisher, or the content type, these production flourishes can be significant.

No longer are documents read solely by humans. Machines aren’t as concerned about the visual impact that a serif font might have, or its impact on readability, or the possibility that the representation might affect the word’s its meaning.  To a machine, the flourishes on a glyph don’t impact readability or its content.  There are other elements of serving content to machines that do matter, sometimes a whole lot. Consistent file structures streamlines content ingest and transfer among parties in the supply chain. Metadata describing the content can impact discovery, sales, or usability of a particular file.  The presence of accessibility features might facilitate or inhibit (if they are missing) readability by some devices in certain circumstances. 

Over the past year, I have been involved in a series of discussion within ANSI and ISO about machine readable standards. ISO has preferred the moniker SMART (Standards Machine Applicable, Readable and Transferable) to describe the format of standards outputs for a machine-interoperable future of communicating standards. An internal effort is underway to define and scope the nature of these documents and how they can be prepared for a modern and futuristic environment. In multiple forums, I have spoken about the need for digitally native documents to be more than simply a replica of the familiar page. Truly digital native documents need a variety of features, including standardized models, accessibility, quality metadata, quantifiability, interlinking, and more, to be truly functional in our environment.  Standards are no different than other publications in this regard.

This conversation is not unlike the discussions from years ago about the “article of the future”, or the discussions around more robust, non-traditional content and its implications on scholarly communications.  Speaking practically, the discussions revolve around how documents are created, distributed and made available for reuse. Certainly, NISO’s work on document structure standards such as ANSI/NISO JATS for journal articles, or ANSI/NISO STS for standards, are critical elements of creating documents that can serve this “SMART” document environment. Beginning with common structures for creating and distributing content is useful so that machines can more easily and more accurately consume them.  But interoperability is facilitated in numerous ways. 

Where standards can and often do step beyond this is in their application, particularly with some of the information standards which NISO produces (along with many others).  Some of our standards are more like software code, or structures that get included in code.  Often, there may be a formal printed document that represents the standard, but a related schema, code list or other structure will accompany that formal standard in support its implementation. The text itself might not be as important as the serialization in JSON or RELAX NG.  NISO has gone further than other standards organizations in our willingness to make these versions available to and accessible by the public at no cost under liberal reuse licenses. We are both supportive of this trend and driven by our own membership community in support of such policies. It is our members’ support that makes this possible and we are appreciative.

On an un-related note, we are opening up registration today for the NISO Plus Conference, which will take place in February, 2020.  It will be an unprecedented gathering of the NISO community and will continue many of the traditions of the NFAIS conference, to which it is the successor.  This will be an amazing opportunity to talk with experts, to share your ideas, and to interact with the diverse information community. An engaging program of sessions has been posted.  Please consider joining us.