Saturday, November 05, 2022

Cautions on ISBN and a bit on DOI

I have been reading through the documents relating to the court case that Hachette has brought against the Internet Archives "controlled digital lending" program. I wrote briefly about this before. In this recent reading I am once again struck by the use and over-use of ISBNs as identifiers. Most of my library peeps know this, but for others, I will lay out the issues and problems with these so-called "identifiers".


The "BN" of the ISBN stands for "BOOK NUMBER." The "IS" is for "INTERNATIONAL STANDARD" which was issued by the International Standards Organization, whose documents are unfortunately paywalled. But the un-paywalled page defines the target of an ISBN as:

[A] unique international identification system for each product form or edition of a separately available monographic publication published or produced by a specific publisher that is available to the public.

What isn't said here in so many words is that the ISBN does not define a specific content; it defines a  salable product instance in the same way that a UPS code is applied to different sizes and "flavors" of Dawn dish soap. What many people either do not know or may have forgotten is that every book product is given a different ISBN. This means that the hardback book, the trade paperback, the mass-market paperback, the MOBI ebook, the EPUB ebook, even if all brought to market by a single publisher, all have different ISBNs.  

The word "book" is far from precise and it is a shame that the ISBN uses that term. Yes, it is applied to the book trade, but it is not applied to a "book" except in a common sense of that word. When you say "I read a book" you do not often mean the same thing as the B in ISBN. Your listener has no idea if you are referring to a hard back or a paperback copy of the text. It would be useful to think of the ISBN as the ISBpN - the International Standard Book product Number.

Emphasizing the ISBN's use as a product code, bookstores at one point were assigning ISBNs to non-book products like stuffed animals and other gift items. This was because the retail system that the stores used required ISBNs. I believe that this practice has been quashed, but it does illustrate that the ISBN is merely a bar code at a sales point.


The ISBN became a standard product number in the book trade in 1970, in the era when the Universal Product Code (UPC) concept was being developed in a variety of sales environments. This means that every book product that appeared on the market before that date does not have an ISBN. This doesn't mean that a text from before that date cannot have an ISBN - as older works are re-issued for the current market, they, too, are given ISBNs as they are prepared for the retail environment. Even some works that are out of copyright (pre-1925) may be found to have ISBNs when they have been reissued. 

The existence of an ISBN on the physical or electronic version of a book tells you nothing about its copyright status and does not mean that the book content is currently in print. It has the same meaning as the bar code on your box of cereal - it is a product identifier that can be used in automated systems to ring up a purchase. 

The Controlled Digital Lending Lawsuit

The lawsuit between a group of publishers led by Hachette and the Internet Archive is an example of two different views: that of selling and that of reading.


In the lawsuit the publishers quantify the damage done to them by expressing the damage to them in terms of numbers of ISBNs. This Implies that the lawsuit is not including back titles that are pre-ISBN. Because the concern is economic, items that are long out of print don't seem to be included in the lawsuit.

The difference between the book as product and the book as content shows up in how ISBNs are used. The publisher’s expert notes that many metadata records at the archive have multiple ISBNs and surmises that the archive is adding these to the records. What this person doesn’t know is that library records, which the archive is using, often contain ISBNs for multiple book products which the libraries consider interchangeable. The library user is seeking specific content and is not concerned with whether the book is a hard back, has library binding, or is one of the possible soft covers. The “book “ that the library user is seeking is an information vessel.

It is the practice in libraries, where there is more than one physical book type available, to show the user a single metadata record that doesn’t distinguish between them. The record may describe a hard bound copy even though the library has only the trade paperback. This may not be ideal but the cost-benefit seems defensible. Users probably pay little attention to the publication details that would distinguish between these products. 


From a single library metadata record


Where libraries do differentiate is between forms that require special hardware or software. Even here however the ISBN cannot be used for the library’s purpose because services that manage these materials can provide the books in the primary digital reading formats based off a single metadata record, even though each ebook format is assigned its own ISBN for the purpose of sales.

The product view is what you see on Amazon. The different products have different prices which is one way they are distinguished. A buyer can see the different prices for hard copy, paperback, or kindle book, and often a range of prices for used copies. Unlike the library user, the Amazon customer has to make a choice, even if all of the options have the same content. For sales to be possible, each of the products has its own ISBN. 

Different products have different prices

Counting ISBNs may be the correct quantifier for the publishers, but they feature only minimally in the library environment. Multiple ISBNs on a single library metadata record is not an attempt to hide publisher products by putting them together; it's good library practice for serving its readers. Users coming to the library with an ISBN will be directed to the content they seek regardless of the particular binding the library owns. Counting the ISBNs in the Internet Archive's metadata will not be a good measure of the number of "books" there using the publisher's definition of "book."

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

I haven't done a deep study of the use of DOIs, but again there seems to be a great enthusiasm for the DOI as an identifier yet I see little discussion of the limitations of its reach. DOI began in 2000 so it has a serious time limit. Although it has caught on big with academic and scientific publications, it has less reach with social sciences, political writing, and other journalism. Periodicals that do not use DOIs may well be covering topics that can also be found in the DOI-verse. Basing an article research system on the presence of DOIs is an arbitrary truncation of the knowledge universe.


The End


Identifiers are useful. Created works are messy. Metadata is often inadequate. As anyone who has tried to match up metadata from multiple sources knows, working without identifiers makes that task much more  difficult. However, we must be very clear, when using identifiers, to recognize what they identify.

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