Making Book 2: Technical Standards

Until I read the final page of MARC for Library Use (while preparing the first in this series of memoirish posts), I’d forgotten that KIPI contracted for another book even before the first one was publicly available.

That book was Technical Standards: An Introduction for Librarians. It appeared in 1986—a 299-page 6″ x 9″ hardcover and paperback. (That’s actually about the same length as MARC for Library Use, around 100,000 words in each case: more smaller pages.)


For reasons that still escape me, the first ALA or LITA committee I was formally involved in was TESLA, the Technical Standards for Library Automation Committee, originally part of ISAD (Information Science and Automation Division, which changed its name to LITA). I started attending the meetings in 1976, and served as a committee member from 1978 through 1982 (chairing the committee from 1980 to 1981).

Beyond that, my formal involvement in technical standards was pretty minimal (until somewhat later, when I agreed to be the founding editor for NISO’s new ISQ, Information Standards Quarterly, which I did from 1989 through 1991). For a while, I was RLG’s “alternate representative” to NISO (the National Information Standards Organization, Z39, which did and does prepare technical standards in library and related areas—it’s an accredited ANSI standardization organization)—but that didn’t mean much, because RLG’s primary representative, Wayne Davison, who was very active in NISO. (RLG had a long history of supporting technical standards; it was also a founding member of the Unicode Consortium.)

I had, however, published articles on technical standards—one in Library Trends in 1982 and another, a column arguing against a proposed standard (a Standard Library Patron ID), in LITA Newsletter in 1985—but by then I was also working on this book.


Sandra K. Paul’s foreword to the book begins “Standards aren’t sexy.” True enough, which may be why there wasn’t much in the way of approachable literature explaining technical standards—especially from a librarian’s perspective, as opposed to that of a scientist or engineer. With encouragement from some key people, I tried to improve that situation.

RLG helped by permitting me to use a wonderful anecdote about precision and technical standards—although it wasn’t so wonderful at the time. RLG used to produce millions of catalog cards—remember, this was the early 1980s! In 1982, RLG moved from an IBM line printer to a Xerox 9700 laser printer, using prepunched sheets of card stock that held four cards each and were guillotined after printing. The people ordering the cards assumed a 3″ x 5″ card size. And RLG members/users started complaining: The cards didn’t fit.

They didn’t fit because the standard for library cards (Z85.1, one of few library-related standards not bearing a Z39 number) didn’t specify 3″ x 5″: it specified 75mm x 125mm, and that’s actually been the size of catalog cards for a very long time. 75mm x 125mm works out to 2.95″ x 4.92″—which means that well-made catalog card drawers wouldn’t quite hold the 3″ x 5″ cards. RLG ordered a new set of card stock and reprinted the faulty cards. It was an expensive lesson, but a useful one.

The book covered quite a few aspects of technical standards in general—among other things, noting the number of technical standards you’re likely to benefit from in a typical day—and considered varieties of “standards” other than formal consensus technical standards, a discussion I continue to view with pride. I discussed motives, implementations, problems, dangers, the standardization process and standards organizations, with some emphasis on NISO. I discussed each Z39 (and Z85) standard in existence at the time and a handful of others.

The book did well—certainly not as well as MARC for Library Use, but well enough that KIPI invited a second (revised) edition down the road. More on that in a later post.

This was another book that required a number of trips over to UC Berkeley, mostly to the Engineering Library with its extensive set of published standards. As always, quite a few people helped with the book—reviewing drafts and providing additional insights.

Crawford, Walt. Technical Standards: An Introduction for Librarians. Professional Librarian Series. White Plains, NY: Knowledge Industry Publications, 1986. ISBN 0-86729-192-3. ISBN 0-86729-191-5 (pbk.)

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