Alphabet Soup: Thema

Thema is an internationally-developed set of subject codes meant to serve publishing's global trade needs. Whereas North America uses BISAC, the UK uses BIC, English-speaking countries use both BISAC and BIC, France uses CLIL, and Germany uses WGS. Thema is designed to be a sort of lingua franca to which all these schemas can be mapped. This way, a publisher using BISAC codes, having mapped them to Thema codes, can send out information in a way that a recipient using CLIL can make use of.

Thema is multi-lingual, and its implementation reduces the need for duplication of work in similar workflows. It is heavily in use in the EU, of course, because inter-lingual communication is a daily need there. It is gaining traction in English-language countries who have to work with both BIC and BISAC. In the US, implementation has not gone as far - that will happen when US publishers are more affected by global market communication requirements than they are now.

Thema is maintained by EDItEUR.

Alphabet Soup: GLN

Global Location Number

GLNs are administered by GS1, the same organization that handles the GTIN. A GLN is assigned to a specific location, meaning that computers don't have to process the text string of a place name. It provides precision - a GLN can identify a warehouse, an office, or a shelf on a store. It can be encoded into a bar code or RFID tag, so that it can be scanned.

Extension components of the GLN allow users to identify sub-locations - storage bins, scan/read points, warehouse docks. GLNs begin with a company prefix, and end with a check digit, similar to ISBNs.

Alphabet Soup: EAN

International Article Number

EAN is one of those acronyms that has outlived its original meaning. It used to stand for European Article Number, and was a bar-coding system mostly used in...Europe.

However, as global trade increased, and big-box stores began selling an increasingly large variety of products, it became clear that books were going to be among those products. Rather than re-stickering or having dual bar codes, it made sense for the ISBN bar code to become part of the EAN system. Thus the invention of Bookland. The EAN's first 3 digits are a specified country code. Books were given their own country - Bookland - with the digits 978 or 979. The rest of the Bookland EAN follows the pattern of the formerly 10-digit ISBN (language code, publisher prefix, item number), but the check digit is recalculated to accommodate the additional 3 digits.

More information about EANs (and Bookland) can be found here.

Alphabet Soup: GTIN

Global Trade Item Number

GTIN is a number assigned to a trade-able object. Developed by GS1, it resolves numbering schemes such as ISBN, ISMN, UPC, EAN, ISSN into a single "numbering space" so that scanners and databases that use the GTIN system can make use of these other numbering systems as well. This allows, for example, supermarket scanners to scan bar codes on paperback books that they might be selling. It also allows warehouses to scan cartons from publishers as well as chewing gum manufacturers. It's a way to allow for the efficient processing of products regardless of what vertical they happen to be from.

More about GTIN can be found here.

Alphabet Soup: ASIN

ASIN stands for Amazon Standard Identification Number. Amazon assigns this to all products sold on its sites. For books, the ASIN is the ISBN. For non-book products (tee-shirts, lawn furniture) or extra-book products (chapters, short stories, etc.), the ASIN is an internal identifier that assists in transactions. The ASIN is a proprietary identifier – in other words, no other merchant besides Amazon will ever require it – which means that smaller manufacturers (or publishers) are locked into sales with Amazon because Amazon essentially supplies the bar code for online sales – implied in the ASIN. More about the ASIN can be found here. (The interaction between ASIN and global sales is interesting!)



ORCID stands for Open Researcher Contributor ID. It is in use primarily in academic, scholarly, and STEM research.

ORCID is a 16-digit identifier, just as ISNI is. In fact, ISNI "carves out" numbers from its own database for ORCID's use so there are no data integrity issues between the two standards.

It's commonly thought that ORCID and ISNI are competing identifiers. Those who have worked on both standards would tell you that isn't true. ORCID began as a self-claiming system for individual researchers. The researcher controls the profile and what goes in it. Because ORCIDs are intended to follow a researcher's career, often the only criteria a beginning researcher has is an email address. That is the only qualification for getting an ORCID assigned to you. ISNIs have much more stringent requirements.

ORCIDs are not assigned to deceased people (so Isaac Newton, for example, doesn't have one - but he does have an ISNI!). They're primarily used in grant and funding applications. The ORCID website does allow you to link your ORCID profile to your ISNI profile.

To learn more about ORCID, click here!

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.

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.

Alphabet Soup: ISRC

ISRC is a music-industry standard.

The ISRC identifies a specific musical recording, regardless of the format in which it is issued (unlike the ISBN). Thus the studio recording of Adele’s “Hello” has the same ISRC regardless of whether it’s issued on vinyl, MP3 or CD.

ISRC is in use at some of the biggest distributors of music worldwide – Apple, Spotify, and Pandora all use ISRCs to identify music. While it was developed in the 1980s originally, it has proven to be quite useful over time.

More information about ISRC codes can be found here.

Alphabet Soup: BISAC

BISAC began as a standalone initiative, designed to create standards for EDI transmissions in the book supply chain, largely between ordering departments and warehouses. BISAC was responsible for a file format called “BISAC fixed” as well as another called “X12”. With the rise of book superstores such as B&N, Borders, and Books a Million, it became apparent that a 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.

Initially there were only a handful of codes. By 1995, there were around 50 general codes, with a few “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 was subsumed by the Book Industry Study Group, which had originally been created as a research community analyzing the book market. And 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 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 “Occult” 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 fengshui, 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.

More information about BISAC codes can be found here.