Lucky 13

This, taken from an Access Copyright email:

To allow for the creation of new numbers, the ISBN standard will be changing from a 10 to a 13-digit number effective January 1, 2007. Books published after January 1, 2007 will only be issued with 13-digit ISBNs (please note that ISSNs are not affected). It is expected that the book industry will begin conducting business transactions with 13-digit ISBNs only, however to support pre-2007 publications, 10-digit ISBNs are convertible to 13-digit ISBNs.

There’s a good explanatory piece about ISBNs, by the way, on Wikipedia. Seems they were invented by W.H.Smith booksellers as recently as 1966. The number breaks down into groups for country, publisher, item, and something called a check digit which seemed to me to be more complex than befitted a Friday. I wondered for a moment why, when there was a need to expand, they didn’t go alphanumeric, like our postal codes, where the availability of 26 characters greatly increases the capacity of a string. And then I realized that the thing is an international standard book number, and there is no international large character set, leaving only… numbers in base ten. This in turn leads me to wonder whether it wouldn’t be sensible to construct such a thing — perhaps thirty characters, say — but I digress still further…


  1. Or we could do it in hexadecimal…wouldn’t THAT be fun!

    I have noticed publishers getting ready for this change for quite a while, publishing numbers in both ISBN-10 and ISBN-13.

    More info from Bowker’s ISBN website (they are the ISBN standards agency for the U.S.):

    BookNet Canada, owned by Bowker’s, has ISBN-13 certification for Canada:

    How will this affect law libraries?

    I’ve looked at how this will affect us in our firm. We do have an ISBN field in our catalogue, which currently does not show to anyone but library staff. I don’t think it is defined other than it has to be a number in the field, so don’t think there will be anything to adjust. We’re double-checking that assumption to ensure we don’t get any nasty surprises next time we load new catalogue records.

    Is it creating issues for anyone other than publishers??

  2. I’ll run with the digression about an international character set. I love the idea. But what about hex numbers (a-f and 0-9)? That enlarges the possibilities. We use that for computers (around the world, I presume). Perhaps it could’ve worked for book publishers as well.


  3. Well, I thought of hex too. But the basic concern/objection is that it uses the Roman alphabet, which isn’t universal. (I realize that our version of Arabic numerals aren’t either, but numbers themselves are and so it eases their acceptance. What’s wanted is a character set that can be taught to everyone everywhere for use in classification. Maybe the Roman alphabet is the thing. But it might be fun to think of something else.

  4. Simon,

    That is interesting. Perhaps something could be developed using some form of mathematical or scientific symbols. Maybe: 0-9 + – = / x, etc. Although maybe I’m being an obtuse American, thinking that everyone else uses the same symbols. I thought they taught us that “math is the universal language.”

  5. There’s always binary.