April 11-14, 2007
San Francisco, California

Addressing The Limitations Of Open Standards

Brian Kelly and Marieke Guy, UKOLN, University of Bath, and Alastair Dunning, AHDS (Arts and Humanities Data Service), United Kingdom


The importance of open standards in the development of widely accessible and interoperable services in the cultural heritage sector is generally accepted. It might, therefore, be reasonable to assume that use of open standards should be mandatory in the development of networked services. However, experience has shown that the use of open standards is not always straightforward and that open standards do not always succeed in gaining acceptance in the market place.

This should not mean an abandonment of a commitment to seek to exploit the benefits of open standards. Rather, there is a need to be honest about possible limitations and to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility within the approaches taken in development work to accommodate limitations and deficiencies.

This paper outlines a contextual model for the selection and use of open standards,  developed initially to support JISC’s development programmes within the UK higher and further education community. The paper provides background to this work and reviews the current status of the implementation of this approach. Finally, it concludes by describing how this community-based approach to open standards can benefit from a wider acceptance of the contextual model and a collaborative approach both to using existing resources and support materials and to maintaining and developing new resources.

Keywords: open standards, policy, digital libraries, interoperability, community, support infrastructure


The importance of open standards for those involved in the development of widely accessible and interoperable services in the cultural heritage sector is generally accepted. Open standards are on the whole regarded very positively by public sector organisations. Why, then, isn’t use of open standards ubiquitous?

It could be argued that the reason is a lack of understanding of the benefits of open standards, or just inertia, with developers continuing to make use of proprietary solutions they have expertise in. Such a belief suggests that greater use of open standards requires a mixture of the carrot (greater promotion of the benefits) and the stick (mandating use of open standards and penalties for non-compliance).

In reality, however, the authors feel that there is general understanding of the benefits of open standards in the cultural heritage sector. We also feel that, although there will be occasions when mandating the use of open standards is needed, there are dangers with this approach. Potentially this could result in services being developed which fail to be successfully deployed because the open standards are too costly to deploy, are immature, fail to deliver the services the user community expects, or have become out-dated, due either to developments elsewhere or to changes in user expectations.

There have been many examples of IT development projects in the public sector where  the costs have escalated and the services have failed to live up to their expectations. An inflexible top-down approach to development methodologies, such as a formal commitment to a set of standards, may be one reason for such problems. There is therefore a need to ensure that sufficient flexibility is provided in the selection and use of open standards to avoid such mistakes being repeated.

Open Standards

Definition of Open Standards

In a paper on open standards it is important to have a clear definition of the meaning of the term. In practice, however, it can be difficult to reach an agreed definition. Rather than attempting to produce a formal definition, the following list of the characteristics of open standards is given:

However, such characteristics do not necessarily apply to all organisations with a responsibility for open standards. For example, within organisations such as W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium), discussions on areas in which standardisation will occur are decided by member organisations who have paid the required membership fee. Similarly, the initial discussions and agreements on the preferred approaches to  standardisation work may be determined by such member organisations. Also, standards produced by organisations such as the BSI (British Standards Institution) are not necessarily available free-of-charge.

Why Use Open Standards?

Open standards are important in the development of networked services for several reasons. They aim to:

The authors of this paper feel that an understanding of such benefits is widely accepted within the development community. What, therefore, are the barriers to an implementation of a vision based on this approach?

The Complexities of Open Standards

The reality is that despite the widespread acceptance of the importance of open standards and the feeling among some that use of open standards should be mandatory in the development of networked services in practice, many organisations fail to implement open standards in their provision of access to digital resources. This may be due to several factors:

Despite such reservations, in reality many IT development programmes are successful. The success may be based on the deployment of agreed-upon and well-defined open standards. However in other cases, development work may adopt a more pragmatic approach, making use of mature open standards but having a more flexible approach to newer standards when there has been no time to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses and the experiences gained in their use.

Lessons Learnt Through Use Of Open Standards

Experiences In The UK

The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) (, that provides leadership in the innovative use of Information and Communications Technology to support education and research in the UK, has traditionally based its funding of development programmes around the use of open standards. Technical development for  ISC’s eLib programme, launched in 1996, was based on a standards document (eLib, 1996). The document formed the basis of a revised standards document produced to support JISC’s Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER) programme (later renamed the JISC Information Environment Standards document (JISC, 2001). This work in turn influenced the NOF-digitise Technical Standards document (NOF, 2001)  used by the national NOF-digitisation programme which was responsible for digitisation projects across the cultural heritage sector.

The authors have been involved in providing technical advice and a support infrastructure for both JISC-funded development programmes and the NOF-digitise programme. We will now review the experience we gained.

Case Study 1: QA Focus Project

Although projects funded by the eLib programme were expected to comply with the eLib standards document, in practice compliance was never formally checked. It was probably sensible at the time (the mid 1990s) to avoid mandating a formal technical architecture and corresponding open standards – that could easily had led to mandating use of Gopher! In those early days of the Web, we were seeing rapid developments in the variety of services which were being provided on the Web and many new open standards being developed. However over time, and as the Web matured and the rate of innovation slowed, there was an increasing realisation of the need to provide a more stable environment for technical developments and the corresponding need to address the issue of compliance.

In 2000 JISC funded the QA Focus project ( to develop a quality assurance framework, which would help ensure that future projects would comply with standards and recommendations and deploy best practices (Kelly, 2003). The project’s aim was to develop a quality assurance (QA) methodology which would help to ensure that projects funded by JISC digital library programmes were functional, widely accessible and interoperable; to provide support materials to accompany the QA framework and to help to embed the QA methodology in projects’ working practices. Liaison with a number of projects provided feedback on the current approach to use of standards. The feedback indicated: (a) a lack of awareness of the standards document; (b) difficulties in seeing how the standards could be applied to projects’ particular needs; (c) concerns that the standards would change during the project lifetime; (d) lack of technical expertise and time to implement appropriate standards; (e) concerns that standards may not be sufficiently mature to be used; (f) concerns that the mainstream browsers may not support appropriate standards and (g) concerns that projects were not always starting from scratch but may be building on existing work and in such cases it would be difficult to deploy appropriate standards. Many of these were legitimate concerns, which needed to be addressed in future programmes.

This feedback was very valuable and provided a counter-balance to views which suggested the need for a heavyweight compliance regime which forced projects to comply fully with a technical architecture and corresponding open standards. The feedback led to the development of a contextual framework which is described later.

Case Study 2: Support For The NOF-digitise Programme

Unlike the approaches taken by JISC, the NOF-digitise programme involved the use of an external standards compliance service. This approach taken required projects to report on any deviance from documented open standards. In addition a limited amount of checking of project Web sites was also carried out. Initial reports from some of the projects and discussion on mailing lists showed that there were occasions when full compliance with mandated standards was not felt to be possible as compliance would likely reduce the effectiveness or usability of the Web site. In order to address this, the project reporting form was changed to allow projects to document reasons for non-compliance, supported by an FAQ document which provided examples of permissible non-compliance.

This flexibility helped the programme to produce valuable cultural heritage on-line services within the timescale of the programme. However, on reflection, the approach taken in support of the NOF-digitise programme had its limitations:

Although the NOF-digitisation programe proved very successful, reflecting on the limitations of the support infrastructure was useful for looking at best practices which should be adopted to support future development programmes.

Case Study 3: Digitisation Projects Funded By The AHRB

A third example in the UK has been within digitisation projects supported by the UK’s funding body for the arts and humanities, the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council). It has funded hundreds of digitisation projects since its establishment as a Research Board in 1998. During its existence, a mixed carrot / stick approach has been adopted to try to ensure the implementation of open standards for the digitisation projects it has been funding. However, this has also been tempered by awareness that open standards by themselves are not enough to ensure successful digital resources.

The approach taken has largely revolved around requiring applicants to the funding body to submit a ‘technical appendix’ alongside the main intellectual submission for funding. The technical appendix requires the applicant to consider numerous issues relating to the creation of a digital resource. This includes not just open standards, but documentation and metadata, rights, preservation and access, etc. This appendix is then marked by experts in the field, examining the formats and standards the project plans to use and also its commitment to established good practice in digitisation.

Those projects that are well-prepared, e.g. keen to use open standards, have good plans for metadata and documentation, have considered copyright implications, etc., are given the green light. Those that are not well-thought out (for instance,an insistence on using MS Word or PDF as the sole digital format or a lack of adequate metadata) are informed of the weaknesses in their application, and are usually asked to resubmit at a later date.

The panel of humanities computing experts is mainly drawn from the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS), a national advisory service. The involvement of the AHDS within the marking process is part of a larger national strategy relating to digital archiving. Once projects funded by the AHRC have finished, they are obliged to offer a copy of the data to the AHDS digital archive, which has responsibility for managing and disseminating this content. The task of preservation is made much easier by the fact that most material arrives in open formats (e.g. XML or RTF for text, TIFF and JPEG for images). The AHDS has a training and advisory role as well, offering applicants significant advice on digitisation projects before they submit their applications.

While there are some weaknesses in the process (notably, there is little technical monitoring of projects once they have commenced), it has succeeded in inculcating a strong belief within the arts and humanities faculties in the importance of open standards and good practice in digitisation. Those keen to succeed in obtaining large research grants have had to respond to the demands for good practice.

The process has been running since 1999. The initial concerns of both applicants and markers were, unsurprisingly, to the use of open standards. TIFF, SQL and XML were less established than they are now, and a wide choice of proprietary formats could easily have been taken up. But more recently, the focus has shifted to a more holistic approach to digital creation. Open standards have certainly not been jettisoned, but there has been a realisation that by themselves they are not sufficient to ensure long-lasting, valuable digital resources.

This has mainly been because open standards are, depending on the data type being worked with, either easy or difficult to implement. For the more straightforward data types (text, images, databases), the use of open standards is now almost a given. It is now rare to see an application that proposes to create a digitised text using MS Excel, a relatively common event in the early days of digitisation.

But even projects that do use open standards can still create poor resources - the importance of other issues (the need for quality metadata, the importance of building sustainable Web sites) now requires greater attention than open standards,.

In other fields, however, it has proved impossible to settle on open standards because of the lack of usable standards. For more complex data types such as GIS (Geographical Information Systems), video or audio, proprietary standards have been preferred, perhaps  because of their greater functionality, stability, ease-of-use, industry take-up etc. Such issues are known to staff working at the AHDS and involved in marking digitisation applications and they respond in pragmatic fashion, in order to ensure that useful project outcomes can be delivered.

A Conceptual Model For Open Standards

We have described some of the limitations of open standards and the feedback we have received from those seeking to make use of open standards in their development work. However, as we have seen in the third case study, this need not mean an abandonment of a commitment to seek to exploit the benefits of open standards. Nor should it mean imposing a stricter regime for ensuring compliance. Experience has made it clear that there is a need to adopt a culture which is supportive of use of open standards but provides flexibility to cater to the difficulties in achieving this, as was illustrated in the third case study. This culture and approach is based on:

There is a need to recognise the contextual nature to this problem; i.e. there is not a universal solution, but we should try to recognise local, regional and cultural factors which will inform the selection and use of open standards.

Over time, in response to the problems outlined, the authors and others have developed a layered approach intended for used in development work (Kelly, 2005). This approach is illustrated in Figure 1.

Fig 1: a layered approach to use of standards

Fig 1: A Layered Approach to Use of Standards

This approach uses the following layers:

It should be noted that, although it is possible to deploy this three-layered approach within a funding programme or community, there will be a need to recognise external factors over which there may be no direct control. This may include legal factors, wider organisational factors (for example, there are differences between higher and further education, museums, libraries and archives), cultural factors, and available funding and resources etc.

It is also important to note that the contextual approach is not intended to provide an excuse to continue to make use of proprietary solutions which may fail to provide the required interoperability. Rather, the approach seeks to ensure that a pragmatic approach is taken and that lessons can be learnt from the experiences gained. In order to ensure that the experiences are shared across the development community (and more widely), it will be important to ensure that systematic procedures are in place to ensure that the experiences are properly recorded and widely disseminated.

A requirement that funded projects should document their decisions on the selection of the standards to be used and provide reports based on their experiences in the use of the standards will help to ensure that such information is recorded in a systematic way. Providing this information in an open and easily accessed fashion will help ensure that such information can be widely disseminated. The use of a Wiki with RSS to allow the content to be syndicated, with news of changes to the information, can help to support this.

After the selection and deployment of standards, there will be a need to ensure that the standards are being used in an appropriate fashion. One means of ensuring that this happens is the use of a quality assurance framework to ensure that technical policies are documented and that systematic procedures for ensuring that the policies are being implemented correctly are in place. Feedback on the process and standards used is also key for success.

Following validation of the ideas documented above, the approaches are now being deployed by JISC as part of its support infrastructure for development programmes.

Supporting This Model

The provision and implementation of a model which provides a pragmatic approach to the selection and use of standards will not guarantee that appropriate decisions are made and that the selected standards are deployed in the most appropriate fashion. There will be a need to ensure that a support infrastructure is in place to ensure that technical managers, implementers, designers and others involved in research and development activities are able to make technical decisions appropriate for the intended purpose.

A support model which is being developed is illustrated in Figure 2.

Fig 2: Support Model for Use of Standards

Fig 2:  Support Model For Use of Standards

This support model is based on the following features:

There are several user communities involved in development activities. The development community will typically focus on areas related to the standards, development approach and related areas. The user community, in contrast, will often be uninterested in such issues, concerned primarily with use of a service which functions effectively. Although developers should be aware of the needs to address end user needs, it may be difficult to achieve this goal. It should therefore be a requirement of the funding body or organisation to ensure that mechanisms are put in place to ensure that the approaches taken in development will ensure that the needs of the user community are satisfied.

Mechanisms for ensuring the development work is successful in meeting user needs may include:

The Parallel With Web 2.0

The Web 2.0 term gained popularity after our involvement in supporting the eLib, JISC Information Environment and NOF-digitise programmes. However the underlying principles associated with Web 2.0, such as the focus on the user and on user participation and a flexible ‘always beta’ approach, have strong parallels with the conclusions reached in our support work, including:


This paper has argued that what is needed is a more contextual approach to open standards. It could be argued that what we need is not a list of open standards but an open standards process based on a desire to exploit the potential benefits of open standards, tempered by a degree of flexibility to ensure that the importance of satisfying end users’ needs and requirements is not lost and that over-complex solutions are avoided. This process could adopt the contextual approach documented in this paper and watch patterns of usage.

The contextual approach aims to provide a degree of flexibility. In addition, a community-led approach based on a culture of sharing and openness can help the development community. The concepts associated with Web 2.0, used in conjunction with Web 2.0 applications such as social networking tools, can provide a valuable mechanism for realising this aim.


eLib (1996). , eLib Standards Guidelines,  (Accessed 22 January 2007).

JISC (2001)., Standards and Guidelines to Build a National Resource, .  (Accessed 22 January 2007).

Kelly, B., M. Guy and H. James (2003). “Developing A Quality Culture For Digital Library Programmes”.  Informatica Vol. 27 No. 3 Oct. 2000.

Kelly, B., R. Russell , P. Johnston,  A. Dunning, P. Hollins and L. Phipps (2005).  “A Standards Framework For Digital Library Programmes”.  ichim05 Conference Proceedings.

NOF (2001),. NOF-digitise Technical Standards And Guidelines.,  (Accessed 22 January 2007).

Cite as:

Kelly, B., et al., Addressing The Limitations of Open Standards, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007 Consulted

Editorial Note