The ROI on Supporting NISO and Standards

Letter from the Executive Director, November 2021

Late fall brings many things in the northern hemisphere: the leaves changing color, crisp and cool mornings, shortening daylight, and piles of Halloween treats! Fall also brings renewal notices to NISO members, as we prepare for our upcoming 2022 membership year. We all should be grateful to these members for supporting the community work that we do to improve efficient distribution of content.

When discussing membership, we often focus on the value of membership as a community good: Organizations succeed when the community succeeds. Everyone benefits from the existence of standards, so please support the common good. This approach only goes so far, and in tight financial times, unfortunately, the community is secondary to the demands of institutional budgets. However, I’d like to spend some time focused on the very practical and very real return on investment in infrastructure, standards, and the systems that NISO creates and/or supports.

Most people don’t spend their time working on standards because the work is fun and the people are great (though both are true!). They do this work because it solves real-world business problems that organizations are facing. Executives may or may not know the hassles of migrating data, or the challenges of poor discovery because of inaccurate metadata, or the frustration of turned-away users because of authentication problems. Executives may not see the daily headaches these issues cause for their team members, or the disappointment of patrons. Those in leadership do see the aggregate loss of sales, or the potential upside if usage goes up because of better metadata, discovery, or user experience. They do recognize efficiency lags or gains and can certainly recognize when resources can be redirected as workflows become more efficient. They do hear complaints of customers when things are not functioning properly, or don’t compare well with competing services. Each of these processes are direct ways in which standards and community best practice support organizational efficiencies.

Ask yourself, what are the values that your organization brings in the chain that brings content from a creator to an end user? Are you helping to structure that content in its production? Are you facilitating the distribution of that content through metadata distribution? Are you preserving the content for future generations? Chances are, in that process, you are using some form of information standard that was developed, promoted, and maintained by NISO.

Now let’s envision a world in which NISO is not maintaining and supporting the existence of knowledge base information. At first there wouldn’t be a problem, since tomorrow the systems and data interchange would work just as they did today. But slowly, over time, things would start to break down. Content creators begin sharing new types of outputs into the market, but they don’t fit nicely into existing metadata structures. Legal changes in accessibility regulations require updates to how content can be modeled to support text to speech. Changes in browser technology create challenges for your traditional IP-based authentication system. Technology is constantly evolving, and NISO is constantly at work updating and upgrading the portfolio of standards and best practices to support this complex ecosystem.

To focus on one community supported by NISO, libraries have become significantly more efficient in their acquisition, cataloging, circulation, and preservation activities over the years. At a high level, this can be seen in the aggregate circulation by libraries, which has grown significantly over the past decade. At post-secondary institutions, total circulation has increased 362% from 2001 to 2018, but unfortunately, professional librarian staff has decreased by 9% since 2012. This isn’t to praise the real negative impacts on those thousands of librarians who no longer have jobs, nor to argue that libraries do not need more resources, because, as I have argued before, they really do. Rather, it is to recognize the technological and business-model changes that have impacted how libraries function. Even as the library is serving more content to more patrons, many of the library staff who had been tasked with cataloging, reference support, or more tedious circulation tasks, such as check-in, check-out, and reshelving, have been reassigned to more systems-level or user-focused roles. 

This circulation growth is almost entirely due to an increase in digital content circulation, driven in large part by an increase in content available online. With big deals and open access content, library patrons can get broader access—which they are availing themselves of—yet these resources do need management, albeit differently from traditional physical materials. Digital content distribution requires interoperable systems to achieve this efficiency, including: e-resource management systems, persistent identifiers, consistent file structures, simplified licensing, consistent metadata, regular user access experiences, and consistent usage data reporting. Each of these areas of work NISO has conducted over the past decade has helped to facilitate the efficiencies that allowed libraries to circulate more content to more users with fewer resources. Certainly, NISO hasn’t been responsible for every advance that made this efficiency possible. Similar increases in productivity can be seen across our community, from libraries to publishers to software providers. Every institution can point to at least one position where a person has been reassigned to another role where they can better serve patrons or customers because of our work.

Of course, one could ask, “What have you done for my institution lately?” thinking that all these efficiencies are now in the bank, so why keep investing in them? To consider this, let’s first set aside the need to maintain each of these standards on a constant basis, which is no small undertaking. Whom among you can’t think of at least a handful of ways your role or your institution could be more efficient, or identify one or more overly manual workflows that could be improved through a community approach to solving the problem? How much would solving that problem be worth to your organization? How many hours are spent working around the problem? How many person-hours are spent navigating systems that aren’t interoperable?  Now put a dollar figure on that problem. What would you pay for a solution or simply an improvement? It’s likely far less than any organization pays NISO in its annual dues.  

Perhaps you’re not a member, and you don’t see the value of engaging directly in the process of development. You’re still benefiting from NISO’s work. Your institution is likely using persistent identifiers and metadata. I recall a conversation with a CEO in our community some years ago who was considering NISO membership. I asked whether they used identifiers in their business processes. “Oh, without identifiers we couldn’t function,” he responded. “So, if your entire business is built upon the existence of these structures we build, why aren’t you supporting our work to maintain them?” I responded. 

Realistically, is your organization in the same position?  How critical to your infrastructure is the output of work?

Many, if not most, of the people reading this post are members, for which we thank you. NISO could not succeed without your support and dedication to our mission. It’s important now and again to reflect on why we are members, and what the real tangible benefits are of our work. They may not always be obvious, because one of the challenges we face is that people don’t focus on infrastructure, which is what NISO supports. Infrastructure is critical, and it needs attention and resources, not because it is a common good—though it may well be—but rather because your organization relies on it. Your organization would be worse off were it not there or when it breaks. It is in your interests to ensure we remain well-supported to ensure it doesn’t break. 


Todd Carpenter
Executive Director, NISO