Alphabet Soup: ISNI


The ISNI was developed in 2010 and published by ISO in 2012. While we have identifiers for just about every form of intellectual property, the ISNI identifies the people and organizations that create that intellectual property. Authors, composers, musicians, actors, directors, producers, public figures, music labels, publishing companies – anybody who has created or contributed to the creation of intellectual property is eligible for an ISNI.

ISNI is particularly helpful in two cases – differentiating people with the same or similar names, and collocating people who have made multiple contributions across a variety of media. Large publishing houses, for example, frequently have similarly-named authors in their stables and royalty tracking can be made easier with an identifier like ISNI.

In addition to helping with rights tracking, the ISNI plays a central role in connecting various different sorts of systems together. In use by Wikipedia, Musicbrainz, the British Library, Harvard University, and a number of other organizations, ISNI provides a bridge between all these data sets, a way of linking all these different collections together with a common identifier. This enhances discoverability across the web.

ISNI registration agencies tend to form around specific interests.

The BnF, for example, is focused on French-related interests. Ringgold registers only organization names. The British Library is focused on UK-related contributors. Iconoclaste specializes in French-Canadian musicians. Numerical Gurus is focused on creators of books, music, video and film, and other media and entertainment content.

Numerical Gurus is the only registration agency in the US, and it is the only registration agency that also provides applications for individual contributors. The rest only do bulk uploads.

More information about ISNI can be found here.

A Detour Into Some History

ISBN History

Born in Romania, Emery Koltay grew up in Hungary and was active in the Hungarian resistance to Communism. He spent a lot of time in and out of prison camps before eventually fleeing to the US, where he began working…for R. R. Bowker.

Bowker’s Books in Print database has long roots, going back to the 1800s. It was (and still is) intended to be a catalog of all the books being published in the United States. (Later versions include the UK and Australia as well.)

While he was there, the UK bookseller and wholesaler WH Smith was building a new warehouse that was going to be computerized. This system required every book in the warehouse to be numbered. WH Smith recruited a man named Gordon Foster, who had worked at Bletchley Park during World War II and later worked with Alan Turing at the University of Manchester. In 1965, Foster developed the SBN, a nine-digit number that WH Smith could use to identify editions of books in their new computer system.

Koltay followed the SBN’s progress from the US, and introduced the concept to US publishers as part of his work at Bowker. That set the stage for the number to be refined and ratified by ISO – the International Standards Organization. Within 4 years, ISO published the standard for global use – the fastest an ISO standard had ever been approved.

The ISBN remained at 10 digits until 2005, when it evolved into a 13-digit number to align with the EAN barcode, which was becoming the standard in retail.

It’s important to remember that the ISBN was initially created to solve the problems that digitization was bringing to the book world. Our so-called “digital disruption” is actually a culmination of events that began in the 1960s, when computers began to be more widely used outside of military and academic settings.

BISAC History 

BISAC began as a standalone initiative in 1976, designed to create standards for EDI transmissions in the book supply chain, largely between ordering departments and warehouses.  These were early versions of what ONIX would eventually become – a way of communicating among trading partners.

With the rise of book superstores such as B&N, Borders, and Books a Million, it became apparent that an additional standard was needed to determine where in these stores books should be shelved. BISAC took on the responsibility of creating standardized codes that publishers could use to suggest to bookstores which section of a store a book would be a good fit for.

By 1995, there were around 50 general codes, with “sub-codes” under each – forming a 2-level hierarchy. The codes were rather cryptic – 3 letters followed by some numbers – because they were developed for machine-to-machine processing. The actual names of the codes were only used by those doing the assigning and those receiving the books and deciding where to put them. (There were those nerds who had the codes memorized, because there were so few of them.)

But with the emergence of online retailers, BISAC experienced a period of rapid change. It merged with BISG in 1999. BISAC codes were developed with an eye towards discovery on the web as well as in-store placement of books. Whereas bookstores required a single BISAC code, web stores could “shelve” a single book in multiple categories. Most guidelines now recommend 3-5 codes per title.

You might notice, for example, that the “Body, Mind and Spirit” BISAC categories begin with the characters “OCC”.

This is because that category used to be called “Occultism and Parapsychology” back in the 80s and 90s. It was where books about UFOs, spiritual healing, crystals, Wiccans, and other titles were shelved. The OCC prefix evolved into the “New Age” category. As “Body, Mind and Spirit”, it has been expanded to includes books about mindfulness, meditation, reiki, “inspiration and personal growth”, and feng shui, all of which are fairly mainstream, in addition to continuing with more obscure topics such as astrology and numerology.

So if the BISAC prefix doesn’t match up to the name of the category itself, it probably had a previous life as a category more appropriate for the 80s or 90s cultural landscape. Books reflect our landscape, and their subjects evolve over time.

Alphabet Soup: ISSN


The ISSN identifies ”serial publications” – journals, magazines, annual conference proceedings. Developed on the heels of the ISBN, the ISSN was drafted in 1971 and published by ISO in 1975. It was clear from the ISBN’s success that numbering publications was a good idea.

The ISSN, unlike the ISBN, is a dumb number. The digits carry no intrinsic meaning; there are no prefixes or groups. The ISSN is an eight-digit number – seven digits and a checksum.

Also unlike the ISBN, there is such a thing as an e-ISSN.

As you might expect, it identifies the digital version of the journal. There is, therefore, a p-ISSN, identifying the print version.  Linking the two is the ISSN-L, which is assigned to whichever version is published first.

More information about ISSN can be found here.

Carrots and Sticks

Not too long ago, I was at a conference hotel, getting some work done in the lobby between sessions. A friend dropped by to chat, and I showed him an app that I use for productivity and good habits. It's a role-playing game called Habitica. As you knock to-dos off your list, and check off when you've performed a habit you want to encourage in yourself, you get rewards. It's a positive reinforcement virtuous cycle.

He laughed and said, "You're all carrot and no stick."

It's true. I happily admit it. I function best when incentivized with rewards rather than threats. I might check off more to-dos in a threatening environment, but I'm happier in a rewarding one - which means I do a better job at the things I put my mind to.

Unfortunately, standards adoption doesn't work that way.

There are a great many standards that are created to solve specific problems, but get very slow adoption in the industry. Or none. At least in the US book industry, it seems, there has to be a stick. Carrots don't get the job done.

The stick, in most cases, is that someone has to make the first move in requiring a standard. That was how the ISBN caught on - bookstores began requiring it. That was how ONIX (and the ONIX code-lists) caught on - Amazon began requiring it from the larger publishers. In our portion of the industry, that's what it takes. "Nice to haves" are lovely, but by and large, the book industry doesn't invest in "nice to haves" unless there's a distinct competitive advantage. Which, itself, is at least the threat of a stick.

Other industries have more sticks, it's true. The music industry is a thicket of threats and competition. The video industry is as well. And with our adoption of ISBN (and, to some degree, ISSN) and ONIX, we're regarded as being "ahead" by those industries. But both music and video companies are scrambling with discoverability issues, rights and royalties issues. They're looking closely at, for example, ISNI as a way of solving these problems. They're looking at linked data functionality, so they get attention from Google's Knowledge Panel.

And it may be that, as an industry, we're extremely comfortable with what's already on our plates. But I would argue that, in many ways, we're competing with other types of media for customers - and that competition isn't going so well for us these days. And if those media are looking at standards that we haven't even implemented as potential solutions to their problems...that gap might well become more pronounced.

Treat yourself, maybe. Think about a carrot.