The ISIS-software family : an introduction for novice/prospective users

Author: Dr. Egbert De Smet, University of Antwerp, Belgium (email:
Last update: March 29, 1999

What it is
What it is not
What it can do
What it can not do
When to use it
When not to use it
Who is using it
Who is not using it
Where to get it
Where to get more information

What it is

The ISIS software family is a set of textual database softwares based on the same data formats to which a very strong retrieval engine (for searching information) and an even more powerful formatting language (for displaying/output of information) is applied. The data format allows for textual information of the ‘semi-structured’ type to be stored in a highly economical but still very organised way : all texts are stored in ‘fields’, and fields can have an undefined number of occurrences (zero, one or more), an undefined length (between the limits of - depending on the ISIS-member - about 8 to 64 Kb) and, if desired, subdivided into subfields. By these capabilities, ISIS software can accommodate for the international information formats MARC, CCF and other ISO-2709 based formats. These formats are most widely used in libraries, documentation- and information centres, but as long as the information fits within this semi-structured textual frame (alphanumeric data which can be grouped into logical, structured records) ISIS delivers the right approach. Applications for factual information (directories of organisations, projects, experts, scientists…) abound as well as more catalogue-like, bibliographic databases.

ISIS software comes in several flavours :

CDS/ISIS, a menu-based character-mode system on three computer platforms :
CDS/ISIS for UNIX (Intel based UNIX : SCO, Linux, Free BSD…)
CDS/ISIS for VAX (not maintained anymore)
CDS/ISIS comes with a built-in Pascal programming language.
WINISIS, the Windows-based release of CDS/ISIS with multimedia extensions
CISIS, a set of command-line tools for database maintenance, available for most UNIX-environments and DOS
WWWISIS, a server software allowing for WWW-based access to ISIS-databases on UNIX, NT (as a DLL) and DOS/Win95
ISISDLL, a programming library to develop graphical interfaces and applications based on the ISIS-formats for data storage, retrieval and formatting
JAVAISIS, JAVAISIS is a Client-Server software which allows you to browse any CDS/ISIS databases through a JAVA interface.

The first two family members are developed and maintained by the General Information Programme of UNESCO, Paris; distribution is for free through accredited national distributors. The next three software categories are developed and maintained by BIREME, Sao Paulo (Brazil); distribution is either for free or for a moderate fee (which entitles for support) through the Internet.

The last member, JAVAISIS, is developed by the Italian Association for Documentalists and Librarians (DBA); as a very new product distribution policy is yet to be set and published.

All ISIS-softwares are deliberately multi-lingual (or rather : language-independent) and adaptable in nature, allowing several ‘profiles’ and interface-types.

What it is not

The ISIS software family is not :

a typical database software oriented towards administrative purposes, which imply fixed structure formats, calculations and other numerical handling.
a relational software which allows organisation of data into interlinked tables (however data from different ISIS-databases can be joined into one output format, therefore allowing semi-relational setups).
an ‘integrated library system’ addressing all library automation functions, although such a system can be developed based on the database engine and the programming tools
a commercial product, trying to incorporate more and more bells and whistles, wizzards and other fancies, in order to stand out in the commercial debate

What it can do

ISIS software deals with textual information as follows :

database structures can be defined for an unlimited number of databases
the data are stored in records, with fields and subfields as structural units
fields, parts of fields, processed fields and all or marked words in fields can be ‘inverted’, i.e. registered into a very efficient index file for immediate location into the databases
‘data extraction’ or definitions of what exactly to register, can be defined for indexing, displaying and conversion of data
records with fields, parts of fields or processed fields can be formatted for display, printing or sending through the Internet; this formatting can define character-mode, Rich Text Formatted or HTML-formatted outputs
an unlimited number of formatting definitions can be defined and applied to the data.

The processing of fields, both in producing indexed elements and in output (screen, print or client), is based on a formatting language which includes programmed add-ons, therefore allowing an open-ended multitude of formats.

The retrieval functions allow for :

field based selection (with suffixes)
prefixed organisation of index-elements
Boolean combinations OR, AND, NOT
proximity operators (word distances, within field/occurrence)
selection of elements from other databases
direct selection of terms from the indexes
free-text sequential searching.

The Windows based ISIS-softwares can deal with (references to) non-textual information by invoking dedicated software tools to deal with the multimedia files pointed to.

An important part of the ISIS software solution exists of the manyfold of user-programmed solutions, either as ISIS-Pascal programs or independent programs, provided by the highly international users community.

Some of them are :

add-on interfaces for searching (e.g. HEURISKO, IQUERY, IRIS), data-entry (e.g. ODIN)
independent interfaces for data-entry (e.g. ADEM)
software for circulation control in libraries (e.g. LOANS, ISLS)
conversion tools (e.g. FANGORN, ATTICA, CCF-MARC Converter, DBTOISIS, DB3ISO)
mixed sets of tools (e.g. ISISUT, CISIS Utilities)
small software tools for all types of problems :
‘global modifications’ of values through a range of records or the whole database
doubles checking
conversion upper to lower case
cleaning up databases (spaces, low and high ASCII-values…)
moving field contents and field tags

Mostly the problem is not ‘does it exist ?’ but : ‘where can I find it ?’.

What it cannot do

ISIS software cannot easily deal with :

numerical values, so applications where intensive calculations (as in accounting and stock management) are needed are not good candidates
very dynamic data where high numbers of information units are to be replaced all the time by new values (as in financial systems)
data where the presentation lay-out elements (fonts, page characteristics…) need to reside with the data themselves or are set for individual words (as in textprocessors and electronic publishing software)
huge text documents (like books), unless these are split into smaller subunits (as ‘records’)

When to use it

ISIS software is best suited in situations where :

there is a need for non-standard, sophisticated solutions
information of very different types (with different ‘field structures’) is to be integrated into one database allowing for multi-type information retrieval
the user (or using organisation) is happy with the idea of a ‘do-it-yourself’ solution, requiring above average skills and expertise, but allowing for open-ended elaboration of applications
financial constraints are real on the one hand, but manpower is available on the other hand.


When not to use it

As a corollary to the previous section, it can be stated that ISIS software is not suited in situations where :

no or very little manpower and expertise are available
financial constraints are not predominant
‘closed-box’, standardised solutions are most wanted

In such cases very good commercial alternatives are available, which can provide easier start-up guidance, better documentation and more off-the-shelf application models.


Who is using it

By the UNESCO- and non-profit-based nature of the software, ISIS software is mostly used, even to a degree of dominant positions as far as documentation and library applications are concerned, in :

Latin and South America
Eastern Europe, including Russia
the Near East (Iran, Pakistan…)
India, China and the Far East.

Within the ‘Western’ world ISIS software is mostly used in the non-profit environments, e.g. the NGO’s for development co-operation, cultural organisations, small documentation units etc.

UNESCO counts (by registration) more than 10.000 registered users, but this estimate hides both many unregistered users as registered non-users.


Who is not using it

Since UNESCO does not distribute the software for commercial or other profit-oriented environments, ISIS is not used in firms and companies. Also larger libraries who can afford to buy dedicated ‘integrated’ (but always expensive) softwares for library management (including acquisition transactions and circulation management) are not using ISIS, with an exception sometimes for small sub-units within the library where text-retrieval rather than administrative management is the foremost priority.


Where to get it


Although UNESCO distributes directly many copies of the package from Paris, the policy is to promote the establishment of distributing centers in as many countries as possible, whenever the number of users becomes significant, so as to reduce the financial burden on UNESCO. To date we have a network of some 138 officially appointed distributors around the world, 72 of which are national distributors. The conditions on the use of CDS/ISIS are specified in the License Agreement signed between UNESCO (or the official distributor) and the receiving institution.


Available from national distributors and/or UNESCO's ftp site on


Available from BIREME ftp site on


Available from BIREME ftp site on


Available from BIREME ftp site on


Info from : Italian Association for Documentalists and Librarians, Italy; Last update: 25 April 1998

more2.gif (598 bytes) at (by Italian Association for Documentalists and Librarians (DBA))

Where to get more information (info from various sources)

The UNESCO micro CDS/ISIS Software website at UNESCO, Paris
Purpose and objectives
System development policy
Hardware and software requirements
The Windows version
Internet tools
Distribution policy
Links to other CDS/ISIS sites
Downloading sites


The CDS/ISIS User Forum (Hosted and maintained by Wageningen Agricultural University Library, Netherlands) provides links to various CDS/ISIS sites and includes information on the very instructive, active and animated CDS/ISIS Discussion List (some 730 participants in November 1977);
LISTSERV distribution list CDS-ISIS
Web site
Related web sites: large list!
User Groups

This is am extremely useful site with a wealth of links to ISIS related tools, documentation, applications etc. Here is a selection (25 April 1998):

  1. Putting CDS/ISIS databases on a CD-ROM
  2. The CDS-ISIS software archive: utilities for Demonstration and learning , Data conversion, User friendly searching and browsing , Data entry and editing , Printing. 
    more2.gif (598 bytes)  on
  3. Database designs (e.g Union catalogue of serials)
  4. Multilingual stopword file
  5. Binbliography on ISIS
  6. Archive of the CDSISIS Listserv
  7. Links to over 25 ISIS related ftp and WWW sites
The ISISPLUS (the CDS/ISIS UK User Group) Home page provides information on CDS/ISIS activities in the UK , information on ISIS related meetings and links to other sites;
The  CDS/ISIS Handbook (by Alan Hopkinson and Andrew Buxton).
More info on


As ISIS is not a commercial product no commercial support is available.

Support for the ISIS software follows the characteristics of the ‘do-it-yourself’ philosophy, mentioned above, meaning that all support presupposes the initiative of the users themselves and the capacity to wander around for useful sources of information and help :

some countries have user-groups, which organise themselves with regional persons for helpdesk functions
many user-groups organise training courses at beginners’, intermediate and advanced levels
on the Internet an e-mail based ‘discussion list’ is the most important source for help, problem solving and additional information (more2.gif (598 bytes)
several WWW-sites gather and keep available all kinds of related information, useful addresses, sample applications, databases and problem-solving tools (clearing-house function), a.o. : URL,… The best starting point is, providing a real clearing-house function with many links to other sources.


Page last updated on : May 31, 1999

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