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Thursday, July 31 2014 @ 04:48 PM CDT

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The British Library, XML, and the Rest of the Story

OpenDocument and OOXMLThe British Library was prominently featured in the November 22 announcement by Microsoft as a supporter of its plan to offer the Microsoft SML Reference Schema to Ecma and ISO. But what does that exactly mean?The British Library was prominently featured in the November 22 announcement by Microsoft as a supporter of Microsoft's plan to offer its XML Reference Schema to Ecma and ISO. As is not unusual, the XML press release included quotes from a number of supporters, including in this case this statement by Adam Farquahar, head of e-Architecture for the British Library:

Just as our predecessors stewarded the development of the national published archive over the past 250 years, the British Library is committed to preserving and providing access to the U.K.'s digital heritage. We expect that establishing Microsoft Office Open XML as an open standard will substantially enhance our ability to achieve this. It's an important step forward for digital preservation and will help us fulfill the British Library's core responsibility of making our digital collections accessible for generations to come.

The press release also listed Apple, Barclays Capital, BP (British Petroleum), Essilor, Intel Corporation, NextPage Inc., Statoil ASA and Toshiba, as well as the British Library and Microsoft, as the cosponsors offering the XML schema to Ecma.

The immediate effect of the announcement was to negate a good deal of the forward momentum that had built up Since the Massachusetts Information Technology Division (ITD) had announced its adoption of the OpenDocument format (ODF)developed by OASIS and already submitted to ISO.

But, as is so often the case, first impressions are not always complete, and therefore can create an inaccurate impression. And so it is here.

An article by Peter Wiggins appeared this morning at InfoToday.com, titled, British Library and Others Join Microsoft in Document Standards Effort . Wiggins apparently interviewed the British Library's Adam Farquawar, and includes a number of quotes, including the following:

We think it’s fantastic that Microsoft is opening up the MS Office formats to standardization.

I think that it is significant that Microsoft is taking this step. Microsoft is listening to customers who want to ensure that they have full access to the content that they have created. The route that they are following—standards-based followed by standardization—is a very positive one, and I anticipate that the resulting standardized formats will have excellent preservation properties. There are many alternate routes that they could have taken!
So far, this could have been scripted by Microsoft's own PR deparment. But the concluding paragraphs of the article provide a very different perspective (emphasis added by me):

Early in November, Microsoft announced a project to digitize 100,000 rare and out-of-print books from the British Library collection. [For more information, see the NewsBreak at http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb051121-2.shtml.] Farquhar says that that effort is not directly related to the Open XML announcement: "Some people think we are adopting Microsoft formats as our standard for digital preservation. This is not right; we are striving to make sure that content we receive in MS formats will be preserved." He continued: "What format will we deliver? We deliver a lot of articles and in many formats. We deliver content in PDF, Office Open, ODF, TIFF — whatever format the customer wants."

In short, the British Library is not recommending the XML Reference Schema as an exclusive solution, but giving a sigh of relief that if Microsoft has decided to offer some sort of methodology to permit long-term preservation.

Unfortunately, it takes time for news such as this to make its way into the marketplace, if it ever becomes widely disseminated at all. In Massachusetts, the flow of high-quality, timely information is particularly important, because the legislature will decide in the not too distant future whether the ITD's ODF policy will live or die (sadly, the same may apply to the ITD's chief, State CIO Peter Quinn, if his opponents have anything to say about it).

How soon could a decision be made by the Legislature? My most recent information is that passage of the bill in question is unlikely before the end of the year, but this should not be regarded as conclusive. Of note in this regard is the fact that another public discussion will be held on December 6, this time convened by Senator Hart, and (this time) including advocates on both sides of the issue.

Hopefully, this will provide an opportunity for a more balanced public airing of the facts at issue than occurred on October 31. I'll provide further details as they become available.

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