ISO's successful ISBN book identification standard renewed for 21 st century

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ISO has published a new edition of its heavily utilized ISBN standard providing the international book identification system on which it is based with increased capacity for the future, benefiting publishers, booksellers and libraries worldwide – as well as readers.

Since 1970, the ISBN standard has allowed unique identifiers for books or similar monographic publications. It is a vital link in the book supply chain. But the very success of the ISBN system – currently based on 10 digits – is causing it to run out of capacity.

The explosive growth of electronic publishing has added to the pressure on supply of ISBNs, as publishers take the opportunity afforded by the Web and e-commerce to sell publications in different ways. A new version of the original ISO standard on the ISBN guarantees future ISBN capacity through a 13-digit system fully compatible with the original one.

The ISBN has been an essential feature of the global book trade and a key component in library catalogue records, because a unique ISBN accompanies a book or similar monographic publication from its production and onwards throughout the supply and distribution chain. The use of ISBN is key to ordering systems as well as facilitating rights management and monitoring of sales data. The global success of the ISBN system is the envy of other industries.

ISO technical committee ISO/TC 46, Information and documentation, subcommittee SC 9, Identification and description, decided to address this capacity issue far in advance of its becoming an actual problem, while the publishing industry, booksellers and libraries still had time to prepare for the necessary changes to their inventory, ordering and catalogue systems.

In 2002, ISO/TC 46/SC 9 established a working group – WG 4 – to develop the changes to the ISBN and draft the new edition of ISO 2108. Michael Healy, the Convenor of WG 4 explains that, “Our objective was to ensure that the ISBN over the next 10 to 20 years continues to serve the existing and emerging needs of publishers, librarians and booksellers at least as well it has in the past 30 years.”

A principal benefit, reflected in the new ISO 2108, is consistency with plans elsewhere to standardize trading systems around 13-digit barcodes as of 2005. The 13-digit solution enables the ISBN system to make use of a new “979” EAN prefix which was reserved years ago for the future use of the book trade within the EAN system. This dovetails with a move to the EAN.UCC system in the North American supply chain and aligns the ISBN with other product numbering systems, making trade with non-book retailers much easier.

Under the new ISO 2108, it will not be necessary to assign new ISBNs to products that have already been published with a 10-digit ISBN, but conversions from the 10 to 13-digit ISBN format will be required for existing products by 1 January 2007. Commercial systems will not support the 10-digit ISBN after that date.

Everyone who records, stores or exchanges ISBN data in an automated system will have to ensure that those systems can accommodate the 13-digit ISBN format by 1 January 2007. Although the change primarily affects systems, it will also have an impact on editorial processes, sales and marketing, warehouse management, production, accounting and cataloguing functions. Therefore publishers, distributors, retailers, libraries and automated system suppliers are advised to obtain the new ISO 2108.

Additional information about changes to the ISBN is available on a Web site provided by the ISO/TC 46/SC 9 Secretariat at:

ISO 2108:2005, Information and documentation – International Standard Book Number (ISBN), costs 99 Swiss francs and is available from ISO national member institutes (see the complete list with contact details) and from ISO Central Secretariat (see below).

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