International Standards in a Time of War

Letter from the Executive Director, May 2022

Despite the imposed separation that we have all experienced over the pandemic, we still operate in an interconnected global world. It may seem like our environments have grown closer and more bounded, but our information world is still global, and work continues to make it more efficient and interoperable. Next month, the ISO community related to information and documentation will again gather virtually to advance our work. Hopefully, in 2023 we will be able to meet again in person! 

NISO plays several important roles in this ISO work, including representing US interests on this committee, appointing experts to various working groups, and voting and commenting on draft standards. NISO also holds a leadership role in managing the work on identification and description (ISO TC46/SC9). US-based NISO Voting Members can have a voice through NISO in this process, either directly or indirectly (or NISO can help connect non-US-based members with their national representatives). Several NISO standards have gone on to become international standards applied around the world, such as the Standard Serial Number, which became the ISSN; the Digital Object Identifier (DOI); the Dublin Core Metadata set; and the exchange protocol Z39.50.

Political issues abound in international relations, cooperation, and trade. The same is true in the world of standards. In the esoteric world of information standards, some of the most political things we engage in revolve around international standards—for example, ISO Country Codes. There are various coalitions and perspectives on the status of certain geographic regions and whether they are assigned a country code, or what that code might be, which can become weighty issues.  

Even less-fraught political issues, such as library RFID systems, circulation, or metadata management, may be driven by national politics or regional perspectives on how institutions such as libraries are organized and function. In countries where cultural institutions are managed on a national level,  different systems for managing resources exist than in countries where there is no central or even regional coordination. These structural issues eventually play a role in what standards are necessary or what approaches are even viable from country to country.

Similarly, in these forums, what position should one take when working with colleagues from belligerent countries involved in military conflicts? Given the war in Europe presently, this has become a significant concern. Surely, international standards work on cultural information exchange is distinct from the raging battles taking place. But can it be? If we stand by our principles, then we should apply them in each and every forum we can. People working in the library and publishing worlds in Russia very likely have little influence on decision-making about the conflicts their country engages in. However, particularly in international forums, these experts do represent the national interests of their country. Meanwhile, ISO, which hosts this work, has taken an almost business-as-usual position, despite tens of thousands of deaths and millions displaced. 

ANSI has also taken a legalistic position about its participation, indicating that nationals from sanctioned countries may participate in international work, assuming that the expert is not individually sanctioned. NISO hasn’t faced this issue directly, since we have no members or working group participants in our working groups from these countries.  

But how does NISO react, if faced with the situation of having to interact with Russian delegates? 

A lot has been written about the decoupling of Russia from the scientific and scholarly communications ecosystem. In some ways, these stories turn on the idea that this decoupling is temporary and that the underlying relationships can survive this chapter. Perhaps this recent story in the Washington Post is indicative that the isolation is having an impact and that sentiment is shifting. Perhaps even the smallest act of opposition is worth something.  However, it should be noted that any action is neither personally nor professionally focused but is aimed at a higher level and in support of higher principles.

Apart from that, there are several important items on the forthcoming agenda. Work on two identifiers, the International Standard Content Code (ISCC) and the Research Activity Identifier (RAiD), is advancing. A new Technical Specification on the Principles of Identification is due to be published soon. There’s ongoing work on a revision to the test methods for determining the permanence of writing and printing as well as document storage requirements for libraries and archival materials. For records management concerns, there’s also work on risk assessment, blockchain applications in records management, and digital records conversion. In June, NISO will host a round-up conversation about what took place during the virtual plenary meeting weeks in May. From identification to preservation to records management, there is a lot of ongoing work that will likely impact organizations around the world.


Todd Carpenter
Executive Director