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.

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