Library of Congress “Opens Up” with (wait for it…) OOXML

Last week, the Library of Congress announced that it will “open up with OOXML.” Nine new OOXML format descriptions will be added to the LoC Format Sustainability Website.

Last July, the U.K. Cabinet Office formally adopted ODF, the OpenDocument Format developed by OASIS and adopted by ISO/IEC, as an approved open format for editable public documents. It did not give the same approval to OOXML, another XML-based document format that was based on a contribution from Microsoft to ECMA, another standards organization. OOXML was also in due course adopted by ISO/IEC. The Cabinet Office decision came ten years after the largest standards war of the decade was launched by a similar, but later reversed, decision by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

As that war heated up, both sides (ODF was supported by IBM, Oracle, Motorola, Google and others) recruited as many allies as they could. One of those recruited by Microsoft was the U.S. Library of Congress.
What should we make of such different decisions?

The answer may be different than you are likely to imagine. In the UK, the decision was consciously made with the goal of changing the marketplace to favor competition and choice, and was backed by overwhelming public support. It was also taken in the context of an ongoing public/private debate across the EU involving open standards, open data, and open source as instruments of policy.

The Library of Congress action, on the other hand, was taken in the context of…well, nothing. The US government at any and every level, as well as the states, have at times avoided, and in most cases been simply oblivious to the open format debate. Indeed, the Library of Congress announcement includes the following statement:

[R]eaders should remember that the Format Sustainability Web site is not limited to formats that we consider desirable. We list as many formats (and subformats) as we can, as objectively as we can, so that others can choose the ones they prefer for a particular body of content and for particular use cases.

Not until the end of the announcement is ODF mentioned at all. The article closes with the statement that the LoC plans to draft descriptions for ODF “very soon.”

There are multiple ironies to be found in the LoC’s actions. They include the fact that it is now 11 years since ODF was adopted; that OOXML has received little adoption outside of Microsoft products, while ODF has been broadly adopted; that Microsoft itself did not implement the ISO/IEC adopted version of OOXML until a few years ago (meaning that the descriptions will have at best diminished relevance to any documents created in Office prior to that date); and the fact that the LoC gave a higher priority to describing and posting the OOXML work before tackling ODF.

Most ironically, it seems that the LoC either does not realize, or does not feel itself empowered, to take a stand on the issue of open document formats. If its true goal is to maintain the accessibility of vital public documents long into the future, it should step to the plate and follow the British Cabinet Office’s lead.

Why should that matter?

Here are some examples. During the standards war, Microsoft consistently argues that adoption of OOXML instead of ODF was essential to maintaining access to the “billions and billions” of documents already created using Office. After the war was won by Microsoft, it abandoned support for billions of those same documents in new versions of Office. As already noted, it didn’t bother to support the same standard it had entered battle to defend for many years. And there is nothing to prevent it from abandoning that standard entirely in the future if it decides that a different approach would suit its interests best.

It’s true that the U.S. government sadly has shown no interest on this important subject. But the Library of Congress is the custodian of this nation’s legislative history, culture and experience.

Maintaining a studied neutrality regarding the origins, support, and adoption of open standards is not the way to ensure that the treasures entrusted to its care will be accessible to our children, and to our children’s children.

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