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  • T.M. Jacobs

The ISBN Turns 50 in 2020




We all know on the copyright page of a printed book there is a long number (sometimes ten digits, other times thirteen) known as the ISBN. What is the significance of this number? Is it necessary to even have one?


What is the ISBN?

The ISBN is the acronym for International Standard Book Number. It's the unique identifier assigned to a book. Books published prior to 2007, have a ten-digit ISBN while books published after January 2007, now have a thirteen-digit ISBN. According to Section 5 of the International ISBN Agency's official user manual, a thirteen-digit ISBN is separated into five parts known as prefix element, registration group, registrant, publication, and check digit.


Prefix element is currently 978 or 979. Identifies that the title is using the ISBN system.

Registration group identifies the country, geographical region, or language area participating in the ISBN system. This is anywhere from one to five digits.

Registrant identifies the publisher or imprint.

Publication identifies the edition or format of the title. This also can be up to five digits.

Check digit is a single digit at the end of the ISBN and validates the ISBN.


Do I Need An ISBN?

If you do not plan on having your book available for retail in bookstores, or placed into the library system, or distributed to wholesalers, you don't need an ISBN. As an example: If you've written your family history and plan on printing a dozen copies to put under the Christmas tree or pass out at the summer family reunion, there is no need to purchase an ISBN.

E-books also don't require an ISBN, although it is sound advice to have one if you're worried about someone assigning their own ISBN to your work.


However, an e-book, paperback, and hardcover edition of the same title will have three separate ISNBs.


History of the ISBN

Prior to the ISBN, there was the Standard Book Numbering (SBN) system. According to the R R. Bowker website:


"In 1965, W. H. Smith (the largest single book retailer in Great Britain) announced its plans to move to a computerized warehouse in 1967 and wanted a standard numbering system for books it carried. They hired consultants to work on behalf of their interest, the British Publishers Association's Distribution and Methods Committee and other experts in the U.K. book trade. They devised the Standard Book Numbering (SBN) system in 1966, and it was implemented in 1967."


The consultant, Gordon Foster, Emeritus Professor of Statistics at Trinity College, Dublin, was credited with establishing the SBN system. Later in 1967, the ISBN format was conceived by David Whitaker, who became regarded as the "Father of the ISBN." Then, in 1968, the United States adopted the system by Emery Koltay, who later became the director of the U.S. ISBN Agency.


Also, in 1968, a meeting was held in London with representatives from Denmark, France, Germany, Eire, the Netherlands, Norway, the UK, and the US, along with an observer from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. From this meeting, the International Standard Book Number was approved and was implemented and adopted in 1970.


So there you have it, the history of the ISBN, that number you've seen many times but never knew exactly what purpose it held.


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