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May 20, 2013

[misc] The loneliness of the long distance ISBN

NOTE on May 23: OCLC has posted corrected numbers. I’ve corrected them in the post below; the changes are mainly fractional. So you can ignore the note immediately below.

NOTE a couple of hours later: OCLC has discovered a problem with the analysis. So please ignore the following post until further notice. Apologies from the management.

Ever since the 1960s, publishers have used ISBN numbers as identifiers of editions of books. Since the world needs unique ways to refer to unique books, you would think that ISBN would be a splendid solution. Sometimes and in some instances it is. But there are problems, highlighted in the latest analysis run by OCLC on its database of almost 300 million records.

Number of ISBNs

Percentage of the records





















So, 78% of the OCLC’s humungous collection of books records have no ISBN, and only 1.6% have the single ISBN that God intended.

As Roy Tennant [twitter: royTennant] of OCLC points out (and thanks to Roy for providing these numbers), many works in this collection of records pre-date the 1960s. Even so, the books with multiple ISBNs reflect the weakness of ISBNs as unique identifiers. ISBNs are essentially SKUs to identify a product. The assigning of ISBNs is left up to publishers, and they assign a new one whenever they need to track a book as an inventory item. This does not always match how the public thinks about books. When you want to refer to, say, Moby-Dick, you probably aren’t distinguishing between one with illustrations, a large-print edition, and one with an introduction by the Deadliest Catch guys. But publishers need to make those distinctions, and that’s who ISBN is intended to serve.

This reflects the more general problem that books are complex objects, and we don’t have settled ways of sorting out all the varieties allowed within the concept of the “same book.” Same book? I doubt it!

Still, these numbers from OCLC exhibit more confusion within the ISBN number space than I’d expected.

MINUTES LATER: Folks on a mailing list are wondering if the very high percentage of records with two ISBNs is due to the introduction of 13-digit ISBNs to supplement the initial 10-digit ones.

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