The entire idea of using a controlled vocabulary, in whatever form and by whatever name (thesaurus, ontology, taxonomy, authority file, pick list, attribute table), is to standardize the nomenclature that an organization uses to tag, keyword, add descriptors, controlled vocabulary, subject heading, content tags, semantic indexing, etc., to their content so it can be found, searched, retrieved,… well, you get the idea.

So, perhaps a guide to the standard(s) would be helpful in settling the debate about what to call these things. Here are the main ones. They come from ISO (two committees — TC 46 and TC 37), NISO, W3C, US Library of Congress, IFLA, and others.

  1. ANSI/NISO Z39.19 – Guidelines for the Construction, Format, and Management of Monolingual Controlled Vocabularies. 2005
  2. BS 8723 – Structured vocabularies for information retrieval. Guide in five parts. 2008
  3. ISO 25964 – Thesauri and interoperability with other vocabularies Part 1: Thesauri for information retrieval. 2010
  4. OWL Web Ontology Language
  5. SKOS – Simple Knowledge Organization System
  6. ISO 704:2009 – Terminology work — Principles and methods
  7. ISO/NP 860 – Terminology work — Harmonization of concepts and terms
  8. ISO/CD 1087-1 – Terminology work — Vocabulary — Part 1: Theory and application
  9. ISO/TR 22134:2007 – Practical guidelines for socioterminology
  10. ISO/TR 24156:2008 – Guidelines for using UML notation in terminology work
  11. ISO 29383:2010 – Terminology policies — Development and implementation

So who are these guys? The International Standards Organization (ISO, a.k.a. the International Organization for Standardization) is an international organization with 137 member nations voting. All nations have a single vote and of equal value.

ANSI, the American National Standards Institute, is the USA representative and is well known for its standards, for everything from the threads on a light bulb to information standards. ANSI has designated NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, to represent the USA’s input on information and documentation standards to ISO.

The British organization is known as the BSI, the British Standards Institute. Its standards carry a BS and then number designation; hence the BS 8723. 

ANSI and BSI are both members of ISO. ISO has an extraordinarily large coverage and so has sorted itself into Technical Committees (TC), each with subcommittees (SC9) to get broad input and expertise to bear on specific standards. The TC 46 has to do with information standards and documentation, and is the ISO counterpart of NISO. TC 46 SC 9 has to do with the identification and description of information. ISO TC 37 deals with terminology and other language content resources.

The process for the creation of a standard through these organizations is a lengthy process, since it requires all the voting members to come to a consensus on the proposed standards. All no votes with comment must be resolved before the standard can become official. It can take two years or more for this process to complete. That is too long for some on the web community. So organizations like the W3C – the World Wide Web Consortium – were founded to move the process along expeditiously by creating a draft guideline, publishing it on the web with a RFC (Request For Comment). People could begin implementing on the drafted standard. They were known as early implementers or early adopters. For example, when XML 1.0 was published by W3C, it seemed like a sensible approach and we began using it immediately for software development. An RFC can go through several iterations as a very open process. That is, everyone can see the comments and move forward quickly – in Internet time.

Some organizations, like national libraries, have long shared resources and set standards for information sharing, either physically or digitally. The US Library of Congress has a number of standards which they create, oversee and or maintain for metadata and transfer of information between libraries and publishers. Recently, IFLA (International Federation for Library Associations and Institutions) has also gotten active in standards for everything from public libraries to namespaces and the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records.

Everywhere we turn, standardization is in progress. Keeping up with the changes and ensuring that products and services are compatible and will continue to be so is a constant awareness activity for good providers. The value of talking the same language is increasing as vocabularies become more prevalent and more likely to be shared and reused. Interoperability is essential, and standards make it possible.

Marjorie M.K. Hlava
President, Access Innovations