D-Lib Magazine
April 2001

Volume 7 Number 4

ISSN 1082-9873


OAI and OAIS: What's in a Name?



A few months ago I had an interesting discussion with a publisher of electronic journals. What, I asked the publisher, were they doing to ensure that their electronic publications would be available in the future as well as today? Were they, for example, trying to implement a system building on OAIS? The publisher assured me that I had no need to worry about the long-term accessibility of the journals; they were committed to following OAI. The publisher’s response made it clear that even in our narrow community interested in digital libraries and electronic publishing, our wealth of acronyms can lead to confusion.

The OAIS to which I referred is the draft ISO Reference Model for an Open Archival Information System.1 Developed by the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems, the reference model has been of great interest to digital librarians and archivists beyond the space sciences.2

According to the draft standard:

An OAIS is an archive, consisting of an organization of people and systems, that has accepted the responsibility to preserve information and make it available for a Designated Community.... The model provides a framework for the understanding and increased awareness of archival concepts needed for long-term digital information preservation and access, and for describing and comparing architectures and operations of existing and future archives.

OAI, on the other hand, stands for the Open Archives Initiative.3 OAI seeks to develop and promote interoperability standards to facilitate the efficient dissemination of content. Whereas the OAIS initiative arose from a need to ensure that scientific data would still be accessible in the future, OAI grew from a desire to enhance access to e-print archives as a means of increasing the availability of scholarly communication. OAI is one of the most exciting developments in the area of information dissemination, and holds out the promise of radically changing how we access and use scholarly information.

How did an initiative in scholarly self-publishing and interoperable dissemination end up with "archive" in its name, with all of that term’s connotations of longevity, authenticity, and integrity? According to the OAI Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), "The term "archive" in the name Open Archives Initiative reflects the origins of the OAI - in the E-Prints community where the term archive is generally accepted as a synonym for repository of scholarly papers."

William Safire, in his "On Language" column of the New York Times, recently noted how specialists can become infuriated when a word with a clear meaning in a specialized field crosses over into a different domain, often with a twisted meaning.4 The OAI FAQ itself notes that "language and terms are never unambiguous and uncontroversial (sic) and the OAI respectfully requests the indulgence of the professional archiving community with this broader use of ‘archive’." As my opening anecdote indicates, however, sloppy use of terminology can impinge on more than presumed professional turf. Real harm may result if the scholars who self-publish using OAI also believe they have met requirements for longevity compatible with OAIS.

How can possible confusion between OAI and OAIS be avoided? It is probably too late for the best solution: a name change for OAI. As one alternative, an educational campaign that makes the limited scope of OAI clear would be welcome. Perhaps the best solution would be to merge the two initiatives. An OAI system that complied with the OAIS reference model, and which offered assurances of long-term accessibility, reliability, and integrity, would be a real benefit to scholarship.

Peter Hirtle
Associate Editor


1. The ISO draft is found at <http://www.ccsds.org/RP9905/RP9905.html>. An overview of the development of OAIS is at <http://ssdoo.gsfc.nasa.gov/nost/isoas/us/overview.html>.
2. See, for example, the description of the use of the reference model in recent D-Lib Magazine articles on the NEDLIB project <http://www.dlib.org/dlib/september99/vanderwerf/09vanderwerf.html>, in the British Library <http://www.dlib.org/dlib/november00/brindley/11brindley.html>, and at the National Archives and Records Administration <http://www.dlib.org/dlib/february01/thibodeau/02thibodeau.html>.
3. <http://www.openarchives.org>. OAI has been the subject of a number of articles in D-Lib Magazine. The articles can be found by searching for the term OAI using D-Lib's search engine at <http://www.dlib.org/Architext/AT-dlib2query.html>.
4. William Safire, "On Language: No 'Way'". New York Times Magazine, 1 April 2001 <http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/01/magazine/01ONLANGUAGE.html>.

Copyright© 2001 Corporation for National Research Initiatives

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DOI: 10.1045/april2001-editorial