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Standards and Technical Documents


Welcome! In this guide, you'll find information about standards: what they are, why they're important, and how to find them. You'll find other technical resources like codes and specifications here, too.

Contact the Engineering Librarian for help finding standards, codes, specifications, and more.

What is a Standard?

Think of a standard as a formula created by experts describing the best way of doing something. That something could be related to products, processes, services, or materials.

A standard is a document that provides requirements, specifications, guidelines, or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes, and services are fit for their purpose (ANSI).

Why are standards important? They allow technology to work seamlessly and establish trust so that markets can operate smoothly by:

  • providing a common language to measure and evaluate performance,
  • making interoperability of components made by different companies possible, and
  • protecting consumers by ensuring safety, durability, and market equity (NIST)

Standards are the distilled wisdom of people with expertise in their subject matter and who know the needs of the organizations they represent – people such as manufacturers, sellers, buyers, customers, trade associations, users or regulators (ISO).

Different types of standards include:

  • Product/design-based standards, which identify specific design or technical characteristics of a product.
  • Performance-based standards, which test products by simulating their performance under actual service conditions.
  • Management system standards, which define and establish an organization’s quality policy and objective (ANSI).

Watch the video below to see how standards influence our everyday lives.

Other Document Types You Might Discover

In your design projects, you'll encounter other types of technical documents in addition to standards. Here are some helpful definitions to get you started. 

Code: A code is a model, a set of rules that knowledgeable people recommend for others to follow. It is not a law, but can be (and often is) adopted into law.

One way of looking at the differences between codes and standards is that a code tells you what you need to do, and a standard tells you how to do it. A code may say that a building must have a fire-alarm system. The standard will spell out what kind of system and how it must work (NFPA). Some examples are the ASME Boiler & Pressure Vessel Code and NFPA 1: Fire Code.

Patent: In the U.S., a patent gives you, the inventor, the right to “exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” an invention or “importing” it into the country.

There are three types of patents: utility patents, for inventing a new or improved and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter; design patents, for inventing a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture, and plant patents, for inventing or discovering and asexually reproducing any distinct and new variety of plant (USPTO).

Specification: A document that describes a product or system in terms of what it is capable of doing. These are often refined during the design process.

Technical Report: A document that describes the process, progress, or results of technical or scientific research or the state of a technical or scientific research problem. Fun fact: ANSI/NISO Z39.18 is a standard about the preparation and presentation of technical reports.

Ask Your Librarian

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Kelly Durkin Ruth
Engineering Librarian
Nimitz Library
Reference & Instruction Department
Office #211
Subjects: Engineering