I was reading The Discipline of Organizing the other night before bed.  It’s a good book for that; whatever site described it to me as a textbook sure wasn’t kidding.  It’ll knock you right out if I’m anything to go by.

Anyway–I made it to the page where Glushko is talking about names vs. identifiers (maaaaaaybe by skipping a goodly chunk of the book, but hush).  And there, on the page, was a mention of how there are different parts of an ISBN that mean different things and that’s why ISBNs work as identifiers.

That “ding!” you heard just then is the sound of my brain making a connection that had been lurking in there for lo these many years.  See, back in the days when I worked at a bookstore, I used to spend a lot of time typing in ISBNs for various purposes.  Nowadays, while librarian-ing, I just copy/paste the things and have done with it.  However many years ago, though, I was keying them in manually, and thinking to myself, “Huh, there’s definitely a pattern to this–all of these books have this big a chunk of their ISBN in common.”

For some reason I never investigated further.  Maybe because I was trying to read Paradise Lost at the time?  That took up all my extra brain power while I tried to figure out why anyone would care whether/what angels eat for dinner.  Who knows.  But this week, there was that line in the Glushko to jolt me back into wondering about ISBNs.

So, here you go.  How to read an ISBN.  Starting with 978 means it’s a book; following that with 0 means it’s in English.  Then you get to the part that tells you the publisher, followed by the chunk of numbers the publisher claimed for themselves so that each edition of each book they publish could get one, followed by a single check digit.

This also explains why publishers put all those annoying dashes in ISBNs; it tells you which chunk is which.  I suppose that means I have to forgive them for the fact that it means I can’t just double click on the number to select and copy it.

Also interesting to me–in the U.S., if you want an ISBN (or a block of them), apparently you have to buy them from Bowker.  Like, the same Bowker that does Books in Print.  That makes a great deal of sense, but I hadn’t ever thought before about where ISBNs come from.  It’s weird to me that you have to buy them from a commercial organization.  (Unless you’re in Canada.  Geez, Canada, stop making me jealous.)

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