The History of the International Standard Book Number

For fifty years, the ISBN has uniquely identified tens of millions of books in 150 countries.

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It is a unique (exceptions exist) numeric identifier for books. The ISBN system currently has assigned tens of millions of numbers representing unique works. The origins of the international standard book number date back to the 1960s.

In 1965 the largest book retailer in Great Britain, W.H. Smith, began work on a plan to move to a computerized inventory for its warehouse. They were looking for a standard numeric method of identifying the books they carried. W.H. Smith hired the British Publishers Association Distribution and Methods Committee, as well as other experts, to devise a system.

The name most frequently associated with the resulting Standard Book Number system is Gordon Foster, an Emeritus professor of Statistics at Trinity College in Dublin. The system uses a 9-digit code to identify books.

The system was completed in 1966, and implemented in 1967. A new system was already being devised for use as an international number by David Whitaker, "The Father of the ISBN" in the UK, and Emery Koltay in the United States. But the original 9 digit SBN continued to be used until 1974 in the UK.

At the same time, the International Standards Organization set up a group to look at adapting the British Standard Book Number for international use. The ISO Technical Community Committee on Documentation (TC 46) held a meeting in 1968 in London with representatives from seven European nations as well as the United States and a United Nations observer. Other countries participated in writing, and a report was sent to all ISO member countries.

In 1969 this report was considered at meetings in Berlin and Stockholm, and eventually the International Standard Book Number was approved as ISO Standard 2108 in 1970. This is the standard that most people recognize as the classic 10-digit ISBN, and has served the publishing world in over 150 countries for half a century.

In order to include the original Standard Book Number in the new international number, the original 9-digit SBN is simply prepended with a zero to fit in the 10-digit ISBN system.

Amazingly, the new 10 digit ISBN survived, with almost no modification, for 35 years. Around 2005, anticipating a forthcoming shortage of available ISBNs, the ISO transitioned the ISBN to 13 digits as part of the European Article Number standard. 10-digit ISBNs are prepended with 978, known as a'Bookland' prefix and given a new check digit to fit in the new system.

When those ISBNs run out, new ISBNs will be assigned in the 979 space of the EAN system, effectively doubling the available number of ISBNs. As the need arises, the GS1 international standards body can assign more prefixes to the Bookland space.

The 978 13-digit ISBN began to be assigned in 2007, and in the United States the 979 ISBNs did not begin to be assigned by RR Bowker until 2020. 979 ISBNs began being assigned much earlier in France, with the first assigned registration group of 979-10, in 2009.

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