The ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and its origins in Ireland
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Where to get an ISBN for your bestseller!
Origins of the ISBN
Born in Belfast, Gordon Foster (1921-2010) read Mathematics at the Queens University Belfast (QUB). At the start of WW11, he was poached from QUB by M16 to work as a code breaker at Bletchley Park. Later, he was an Emeritus Professor of Statistics at Trinity College Dublin and eventually Dean of Engineering and System Sciences at that institution. In 1965, he developed the Standard Book Numbering (SBN) code, a 9-digit commercial book identifier upon which the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is based. This in response to W. H. Smith’s (the largest single book retailer in Great Britain) plans to move to a computerised warehouse in 1967 requiring a standard numbering system for books it carried.
The ISBN identification format was conceived in 1967 in the UK by David Whitaker, widely regarded as the "Father of the ISBN” and in 1968 in the US by Emery Koltay, who later became director of the U.S. ISBN agency R.R. Bowker.
This attracted the attention of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) who investigated the possibility of implementing the system globally. After meetings in London in 1968 and Stockholm in 1969, with representatives from across Europe (including Ireland) and the United States in attendance as well as written comments from many other countries, the ISBN was approved as standard in 1970.
The original standard has been revised as book and book-like content appeared in new forms of media, but the basic structure of the ISBN as defined in that standard has not changed and is in use today in more than 150 countries.
ISBN’s were originally 10 digits long, revised to 13 digits in 2007. They contain five groups of digits, separated by hyphens, which provide information identifying the date, region, publisher, title and edition, and finally a check-digit which validates the ISBN.
Due to the global standardisation of barcodes, the first three digits of any books 13-digit ISBN will be 978 or 979. These numbers indicate that the product is a book. This code is read by a scanner as with EAN-13 and UPC-A retail barcodes, giving access to the publication database on computer.
Where to get your ISBN
Have you written or are you planning to write a book which you intend to sell? Then you will need to obtain an ISBN to display on your publication. This allows bookshops and libraries (and your publisher if you are not self-publishing) to locate and keep stock of how many copies are sold/available - much in the same way as a retail barcode.
ISBN’s are issued by the ISBN Agency, 3rd Floor, Midas House, 62 Goldsworth Road, Woking, Surrey, GU21 6LQ. Their phone number is 00 44 870 777 8712 (9.00am to 5.00pm), their email email@example.com and website http:// www.isbn.nielsenbookdata.co.uk
A registration fee is payable. The practice is to issue a block of ISBN’s to a publisher and the publisher is then responsible for guarding that block, assigning ISBN’s to future books, and notifying the Agency of the details.
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