Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 13: November 2004


Three Brief Pieces

Some clippings just call for essays—but some essays are too short or disorganized for separate Perspectives and too long for bullet points in Trends & Quick Takes. The list of essay topics is growing faster than time to do fully baked commentaries. So here we are: Three topics that fall somewhere in the middle. (There were four, but one essay grew long enough to split out as a separate Perspective.) If you can decipher a common theme, let me know: I’ll publish it and congratulate you for your ingenuity.

When Standards Die

Many years ago, people might reasonably have assumed that I was deeply involved with standards, and specifically with the National Information Standards Organization (NISO). After all, my first book was about one specific standard (Z39.2 and the MARC formats that are based on it) and my second was Technical Standards: An Introduction for Librarians. The first two speeches I ever gave within the library field were on standards (in 1979 and 1987, respectively); my first official role within LITA was as a member and later chair of TESLA, the Technical Standards for Library Automation Committee; and I was the founding editor of Information Standards Quarterly, NISO’s quarterly publication.

Oddly enough, I’ve never been heavily involved in the actual standards process. RLG has been and continues to be, within NISO (RLG is an active voting member), the Unicode Consortium (as a founding member) and in other areas. I’ve mostly observed, appreciated standards, used them and written about them.

Perhaps as a result of my indirect role in standards, I found it interesting to look at one particular page on the NISO website: Withdrawn NISO standards. ( There are always some standards that don’t see much use, for a variety of reasons. If standards receive so little use that they don’t deserve the name “standard,” they should be withdrawn the next time they’re up for reaffirmation.

Here’s the list:

Ø    NISO Z39.44-1986 Serial Holdings Statement

Ø    Z39.45-1983 Claims for missing issues of serials

Ø    NISO Z39.57-1989 Holdings Statements for Non-Serial Items

Ø    ANSI/NISO Z39.58-1992 Common Command Language for Online Interactive Information Retrieval

Ø    Z39.59 Electronic Manuscript Preparation and Markup

Ø    ANSI/NISO Z39.66-1992 Durable Hardcover Binding for Books

I don’t know the stories behind each of those withdrawals. The varying prefixes have to do with NISO’s history, I believe—e.g., Z39.45 was never renewed after ASC Z39 become NISO, and two other standards were last renewed before the “ANSI/NISO” combination was initiated. The story behind Z39.59 is probably fascinating, but it’s someone else’s story.

What hit me was the one in the middle: ANSI/NISO Z39.58-1992, the Common Command Language for Online Interactive Information Retrieval. I remember when NISO was polled for withdrawal; I remember agreeing that RLG should support withdrawal. I also remember just a twinge of sadness—balanced by the recognition that history simply passed Z39.58 by.

Z39.58 grew out of frustration with the diverse command syntaxes used in the many online catalogs available in the early 1980s and before. NISO appointed a committee in 1984 to prepare a standard command language; drafts of Z39.58 were available as early as 1986, although the standard was not adopted until 1992. I wrote about Z39.58 as a possibly-desirable standard in Patron Access: Issues for Online Catalogs (1987) and described the standard in the second edition of Technical Standards: An Introduction for Librarians (1991), where I related it to the “West Coast group” of oline catalogs—RLIN/BALLOTS, MELVYL, ORION, CARLYLE, and more recent catalogs elsewhere. If you’re old enough, you’ll recognize the syntax: one-word commands that can be abbreviated to three or fewer characters, frequently followed by one or more specifications. DISplay 1-3 SHOrt; FINd AU eliot AND TI CATS; SHOw NEWs—all Z39.58 statements. The telnet version of Eureka (introduced in 1992) adhered to Z39.58 as closely as possible; NOTIS explicitly followed Z39.58. I devoted a brief chapter in The Online Catalog Book: Essays and Examples (1992) to “Common User Access and Common Command Language,” noting how long it had taken for Z39.58/CCL to gain approval and the likelihood that it would be widely supported. (Common User Access? That’s IBM’s name for the general design principles embodied in the early Mac, Windows 3, and a number of DOS programs such as MS Word 5.5, Quattro Pro, and Ventura Publisher for DOS. Some of CUA survives today in the toolbars at the top of every program, in somewhat different form.)

So what happened to CCL? The Web. CCL was a command language. If people didn’t understand it, you could provide a set of possibilities—and if they didn’t state it right, you could offer context-sensitive possibilities or take “do what I mean” actions.

As it turns out, you eliminate almost all of that confusion within a true Web interface, between radio buttons, pull-down menus, and the other tools of a graphical user interface. After all, a user can’t misspell a command verb if it’s one of several buttons or choices on a pull-down list. It also turned out that you didn’t really need 27 different choices for actions to take all the time; in most cases, a small handful of probable actions (with some secondary actions provided elsewhere in the interface) serve users better and reduce confusion further.

Some of us still miss command-line interfaces. Phantoms of CCL/Z39.58 still exist within command-line search options, which are likely to be with us for years (they really are faster for many expert searchers). Some of us have moved on.

I shed no tears for Z39.58. It’s a shame it took so long to design and ratify, but it was a useful standard for the early 1990s. Technology made it largely superfluous; that happens sometimes.

Blogging and Enthusiasm

Back in May 2004, Library Juice included a Rory Litwin essay with some negative comments about library weblogs and “irrational excitement about the web in general.” Anna Creech, the eclectic librarian, posted a thoughtful essay, “What’s wrong with a little enthusiasm?” I set that aside, intending to comment in a brief essay. It’s taken a while.

Litwin called blogging “a craze in its current form” and said many people were starting blogs “for no discernible reason.” He offered this indictment:

Many people are now using the blog format where a chronological organization is not appropriate to the content they are putting up, for no other reason than that blogs are hot and there are services supporting them. This is irrational. I feel that librarians should be a little more mature and less inclined to fall for Internet crazes like this. That is not to say that a blog is never a useful thing, only that blogs—as everything on the web—should be seen for what they are and not in terms of a pre-existing condition.

I don’t have a blog, I don’t think I should have a blog, and I’m a grouchy old traditionalist, called a Luddite (and worse) by some. I was irritated by the seeming calls that everyone should have a blog and the specific suggestions that I should start a blog; I still believe that some weblog advocates oversell their advantages.

That said, I find I’m on Creech’s side here. There’s nothing wrong with a little enthusiasm. I count on younger and more enthusiastic librarians to pursue some ideas that I don’t pay attention to; maybe I’ll learn to love them later. Or maybe I won’t: Even younger librarians wind up abandoning some portion of their enthusiasms.

Creech notes that Litwin didn’t offer specific examples of weblogs in cases where reverse-chronological order isn’t appropriate. She does that, noting a reference situation where an FAQ notebook has become a weblog. She thinks something like a wiki might make more sense—or, for that matter, a plain old FAQ might be right. But as she says, “I am confident that eventually they will move on to some other format that better serves their needs, and in the meantime, they will have become familiar with yet another piece of modern technology.”

I’ll agree with Creech that it’s important for (some) librarians to try (some) new things. I disagree with those (Creech isn’t one) who seem to think we should all try every fad that comes down the road—and if you asked me to name such a technophile evangelist, I’d be hard pressed right now.

I believe that most librarians have neither the time nor the need to try every shiny new thing—but I also believe that it helps the profession if some people have the enthusiasm to do so, particularly if they’re also realistic enough to spot the problems. That’s a tough combination, but the idea-and-response nature of the web of library-related weblogs (and related stuff) tends to make it more likely.

The thing that bothers me most about weblogs is the seeming need to coin new terms at the drop of an idea. But I use some of those terms, not always derisively. I read weblogs; I still find some of them to be valuable sources.

I’ve made fun of Jenny Levine a lot and Steven Cohen a little. Chances are, I’ll do so in the future. I also respect what both of them bring to the party. We can’t all explore every new thing; we can learn from those who do. I’m not as enthusiastic about anything as I used to be, I suspect, and that may be the most negative consequence of getting older. I appreciate the enthusiasm of others, particularly when they’re willing to consider the possibility that they’ve gone overboard (and I definitely include Levine and Cohen in the category of those willing to consider such possibilities). Without enthusiasm and the willingness to explore new avenues that might or might not succeed, the field will stagnate.

Of course, I could just point you to the May 28, 2004 entry at and say, “I agree, at least mostly.”

Does the Music Matter?

Rogier Van Bakel wrote an odd essay in the New York Times on July 17: “Can an MP3 glutton savor a tune?” He notes, “Almost everyone knows hundreds of recordings that are time machines”—songs that resonate within you, bringing back memories at the deepest level. “By virtue of repetition over weeks or months, music can become a soundtrack for a particular time in your life.”

He notes that music fans can now “indulge boundless appetites” and—even legally—expand their collections at relatively little cost. “But with so much worthwhile music pouring into my computer and from there into my iPod, none of it seems quite as long-lasting or momentous as the old tunes. I’ll come across sets of MP3s I have no recollection of having downloaded just weeks earlier.”

When he was a student and money was tight, “virtually every album I bought came to stand for something.” After seven or eight years, he had 150 to 200 albums—2,000 songs, more or less. “I own a hundred times that much music these days. Question is, was I somehow getting more out of my tunes when all my albums fit into a duffel bag?”

He believes that’s true. He thinks it makes sense to buy two or three CDs (or download a short playlist) and let them sink in before you go on to more.

I see his point, although my situation is a little different. As a student and shortly thereafter, I was a little music-crazy: not only pop, folk and rock, but also even more baroque and 20th century classical. At one point, I owned every album of Stravinsky conducted by Stravinsky except for one TV ballet, “The Flood,” that was apparently in print for an hour and a half. I was buying the Telefunken Bach extravaganza as it came out, pocket scores and all. I think I hit 1,300 albums—all in great shape, and not played all that often even if I did spend way too much time just sitting and listening.

Then I got a life. Tastes, desires, and time changed. I sold most of the collection before CDs came along; the rest went when I converted. At this point, we own something like 150 CDs (and a few dozen classical CDs that don’t contain “songs”)—in other words, we’re about where Van Bakel was as a student. I mostly listen to CD-Rs drawn from a subset of the CDs, most of which I’ve ripped (at high bitrates) to MP3 and reconvert to CD audio when burning. I make up mixes for various reasons, one of them being to approach songs freshly.

A few dozen songs bring back history. A few hundred are memorable from my past. A surprising number are memorable from more recent times because the music resonates with my feelings. I’ve thought about the possibility of really restoring the old songs I liked—probably roughly doubling our collection—and adding some new ones. And I realize that I’d rather explore the 1,500-odd selected songs, at least for a few months.

Is it possible that having all the music you could ever want means that none of it matters as much? Is this another unintended consequence of technology: Cheapening the emotional impact of music by making it so much more available?

I think Van Bakel may be on to something. I’d like to believe otherwise. The music should matter, just as certain books and certain movies (and maybe even certain TV shows) should touch us more deeply than “Oh, I liked that well enough.”

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 13, Whole Issue 55, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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