ISO 6438, the Niamey keyboard, and ISO/TC46/SC4/WG1

From: John Clews (
Date: Tue May 13 2003 - 04:41:27 EDT

  • Next message: Philippe Verdy: "Re: U+0F81 - Unicode 4.0 normalization error (missing exclusion for "Tibetan Vowel Sign Reversed II")"

    Dear Don

    As a librarian involved in standards for 15 years, I can tell you the
    following (see embedded comments).

    In message <00e801c318cd$dd197020$90e4fbc1@gktg001> "Don Osborn" writes,
    Re: Sources for characters in ISO 6438:

    > Does anyone have any leads to sources of information on how the ISO 6438
    > "African coded character set for bibliographic information interchange" was
    > developed? A 1979 DIN document (without explanatory text), "Coded Character
    > Set for African Languages" (,*
    > which evidently is a forerunner to ISO 6438 (a 1998 version of which is at
    >* differs in several ways
    > from usage illustrated in the "African Reference Alphabet"
    > ( published after the
    > 1978 Niamey "meeting of experts on the transcription & harmonization of
    > African languages," which raises the question.

    I am 100% sure that there was no contact between those involved in
    the Niamey project (mainly linguists and language planners) and those
    librarians (mainly from national libraries) who participated in the
    development of work towards ISO 6438. In my view, developments in
    ISO/TC46/SC4/WG1 were sometimes very ad hoc compared to
    what was ISO/TC97/SC2 (which became ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2).

    I have a question: how much difference in repertoire was there
    between the Niamey keyboard layout, and that of ISO 6438?
    Also are both now satisfactorily included in Unicode and
    ISO/IEC 10646? I assume they both are by now. Certainly the
    ISO 6438 repertoire will be.

    I am also 100% sure that there were no implementations in libraries
    of ISO 6438 or any "lookalikes" mentioned above, as coded character
    sets for bibliographic information interchange.

    Unesco was involved in both fields in a sense, in that it took a
    active role in promoting the development and availability of
    automated information systems in scientific special libraries in
    particular (then still somewhat new), and standards for these. At the
    same time, more directly, Unesco (probably via another division in
    Unesco) sponsored the Niamey conference, which led to the Niamey
    keyboard layout.

    The repertoire in ISO 6438 would have been reasonably well researched
    however, among the mainly national systems librarians involved, based
    on repertoires of African letters in the collections of national
    libraries, and with advice from the area specialists and language
    specialists in the national libraries concerned.

    Those were the days when ISO/TC46/SC4/WG1 (coded character sets for
    bibliographic information interchange) was the only group anywhere
    that dealt with extended Latin character sets, or non-Latin character
    sets, and led the field.

    At the time, ISO/TC97/SC2 (coded character sets, as opposed to coded
    character sets for bibliographic information interchange, hardly did
    anything in the area of non-Latin character sets, other than via ISO
    646, ISO 2022, and the International register of coded character
    sets) - I am perhaps oversimplifying here.

    That changed during the 1980s and 1990s, with the sideline of ISO
    6397 (partially based on ISO 5426), and more importantly the
    development of the ISO 8859 set of 8-bit coded character set
    standards, and then ISO/IEC 10646, especially once it was alligned
    with Unicode.

    Going back to ISO 6438, many of the national systems librarians
    involved are long retired, though I could give you some names
    off-list, if you needed to research this further.

    In my view, ISO 6438 is perhaps best regarded as history, as indeed
    are most of the 7-bit coded character set standards for bibliographic
    information interchange which were introduced by escape sequences,
    which were developed by ISO/TC46/SC4/WG1.

    Apart from a very few implementations in Europe of ISO 5426 which
    were used as an alternative to the prevailing widely used ALA/USMARC
    8-bit coded character set (also used with a few variations in many
    European national MARC formats and systems), I have yet to find any
    standards developed by ISO/TC46/SC4/WG1 which were actually used,
    except in the development sections of some natioal libraries, but as
    far as I know, none have been used in actual bibliographic information

    Indeed, ISO/TC46/SC4/WG1 could also be said to be largely history, as
    resposibility for developing coded character sets in ISO has now been
    shifted to ISO/IEC JTC1/SC2.

    However, I understand that ISO/TC46/SC4/WG1 still exists, I'm not sure why.
    It did give as a raison d'etre, the justification a need to provide
    mappings between the ISO/TC46/SC4/WG1 coded character set standards
    for bibliographic information interchange, and Unicode or ISO/IEC

    However, most of the actual work that has been done in this area
    seems to have been done outside of ISO/TC46/SC4/WG1, e.g. by
    librarian members of the Unicode Consortium, of the Research
    Libraries Group, or of the ALA/MARBI committee, rather than directly
    in ISO/TC46/SC4/WG1, though I'm open to correction, as I haven't been
    actively involved in ISO/TC46 standardisation for a couple of years,
    though I've kept a watching brief.

    Perhaps there may be some Unicode list members who are also members
    of ISO/TC46/SC4/WG1 who could explain what else ISO/TC46/SC4/WG1
    does, and why it still exists, since ISO committees are supposed not
    to duplicate the work of other ISO committees.

    Finally Don (if you've made it this far to the bottom, past all the
    character set history, without falling asleep), the Niamey keyboard
    layout was developed by David Dalby, as a consultant to Unesco, at
    the time of the conference.

    Do you have any evidence of the use of the Niamey keyboard layout in
    practice, on keyboards developed by manufacturers of typewriters or
    computer keyboards? I ust don't have much detail on that, either way,
    so I'd be glad of some further information.

    Perhaps list members from SIL might also have some useful information
    in that area.

    Best regards

    John Clews

    John Clews,
    Keytempo Limited (Information Management),
    8 Avenue Rd, Harrogate, HG2 7PG
    Tel:    +44 1423 888 432
    mobile: +44 7766 711 395

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Tue May 13 2003 - 05:34:52 EDT