How Librarians Use ISBNs and Barcodes

If you are new to ISBNs and barcodes, you may want to read my previous post, “Why Your Book Needs an ISBN“.

You can easily see one good reason your book could need an ISBN. The EAN-13 barcode will be found on the back cover of a bound book. Your back cover may also have an additional five numbers that tell the currency and recommended retail price for the book. Bookstores use a barcode that includes the ISBN at the cash register to scan the book titles people buy from them.

Do libraries check out books with ISBNs?

Do libraries use a book’s ISBN (as a EAN-13 barcode) to scan and check out books? Contrary to what seems logical, the answer is no. Even though most libraries now scan items for checkout, an EAN-13 barcode is not useful for checking out books to library patrons.

The reason for using a different kind of bar code for checking out a copy of a title to a patron is very simple. Although both an ISBN and an EAN-13 barcode identify a particular book title, libraries need to track, not just a particular title, but rather a particular copy of that title. Libraries are concerned with tracking one bound volume, CD, DVD, or a “virtual” download copy of a title. The EAN-13 barcode used by bookstores is too general; it tracks all copies of a book title, not just one copy.

Traditionally to barcode a specific copy of a title to be checked out to a patron, library circulation departments have used two systems; one called Codabar the other called Code 39.  Codabar is a 14-digit barcode system. Code 39 can have fewer than 14 characters.

The first number of a library barcode indicates whether that barcode has been attached to a particular patron’s library card or to a copy of a book title. The next four numbers (or the next two numbers for Code 39) indicate a particular library that issues the library card or owns the title. If the barcoded item is a title, the rest of the numbers identify that particular title. Otherwise they indicate the patron who holds that library card. The last number of the library barcode may be a check digit that’s used for quality control.

Some libraries also use temporary “dummy barcodes” to get a whole batch of books onto the public shelf so they can be quickly checked out to patrons. Later on, the library will go back and replace the dummy barcode with a Codabar or Code 39 barcode. The dummy barcoding process is sort of like temporarily bookmarking a book versus permanently indexing that book.

How libraries do use ISBNs?

So if libraries do not use an ISBN or a bar code containing an ISBN to check out atitle, why should you buy one? And why should you have to buy multiple barcodes in order to sell different formats and versions of your book? Here are three ways ISBN’s are important to libraries.

Book buying

Librarians order books using the ISBN numbers. If they can, librarians like to order new kooks even before they are published. Why? Because if patrons hear about an exciting new title and come to the library looking for it, librarians want to have it out on the shelf and ready to be checked out.

Just like library circulation departments, book distributors have their own unique systems of identifying individual copies of a particular book title so they can track the shipping of these copies. Small publishers may use a barcode system for distribution called a Standard Address Number. They buy these kinds of barcodes from RR Bowker.

But libraries do not care which copy of a title they get from a distributor. Any copy of a particular title will do as long at that copy is undamaged when they get it. That is why an ISBN is important to librarians. An ISBN enables librarians to order the right title. Otherwise, they would be getting a copy of a title that is an audiobook when they wanted a print book, or vice versa. The same goes for a particular edition of a book or the language of the book. (If the above sentence doesn’t make sense to you, please see part one of this series, “Why Your Book Needs an ISBN“!)

Will libraries buy a book without an ISBN? Yes indeed! Libraries, particularly libraries with “special” collections, will acquire all kinds of book-length documents, including PDF books without an ISBN. However, the cost to collect these “ephemeral” documents is higher, so a librarian has to really want the non-ISBN book you have written. If you are selling a book to libraries, and you want to sell it to many libraries, be sure to get an ISBN! Make sure you own that ISBN in case you want to reprint or sell copies of your book through another printer or distributor.

Book Cataloging

Remember the bibliographic information or metadata about a book title that is embedded into an ISBN number? That data includes the language of the book, its format, the publisher, and which edition it is. This information or “metadata” is also used for the library book catalog records of both print and digital books. And this is why a PDF book, CD or DVD without an ISBN will tend to get labeled with a random number (called an “accession number”). Then it will be stored in (i.e., “lost”) a file cabinet or a box or on an out-of-the way shelf within a special collection in a library.

Information in a library catalog record for a book enables library staff to shelve the book in the right place and re-shelve it after it has been checked-out and returned to the library. The information in a catalog record enables patrons to use a library catalog to identify a book they want to read and/or find a book they want at their library. That information also enables libraries to loan each other their books via interlibrary loan systems. It’s very important.

This again, is why you must use a new ISBN for your book’s title when the format, publisher, or language changes. You also need a different ISBN when you publish a new edition of your book. Otherwise publishers, booksellers, and librarians will have the wrong information when promoting, selling, buying and loaning out your book to other libraries!

Book Statistics

ISBNs are also tied to book statistics. Essentially, any book without an ISBN cannot be easily counted by BookScan (the main tracker of retail book sales) or RR Bowker (the main tracker of book publisher and library statistics).

The ISBN system for identifying book titles is what enables Bookscan, Bowker, and others to create their statistics about book titles. A book title refers to copies of a book with a particular author/title, format, language, publisher, and publication date (i.e., an “edition”).

For example, RR Bowker annually publishes an summary called “New Book Titles and Editions, 2002-2010” This lists total annual sales by 28 subjects, such as, arts, biography, computers, cookery, fiction, juveniles, personal finance, religion, and travel. It also counts “non-traditional books”. Here’s what Bowker says at the bottom of this table:

Note on Methodology introduced for 2006
Bowker employed a new methodology for 2006 to report the annual title output statistics. The older methodology had focused on books with prices and with subject classifications to report on trends in average price and in market segments.

To obtain a more accurate picture of total title output, the following enhancements were made for the 2006 statistics: –The total count now includes ISBNs that have not been assigned a subject (Unclassified items). –The counts now include ISBNs without prices. –A number of additional book bindings were added to the counts. For example, Stapled and Laminated.

To provide comparable prior year data, the numbers for 2002-2005 data were restated using the new methodology.

*Non-traditional consists largely of reprints, often public domain, and other titles printed on-demand. The number also includes records received too late to recieve [sic] subject classification.

For the sake of statistics that are useful to publishers, bookstores, and libraries, as well for the sake of bookstores’ sales records and libraries’ book catalogs, an author must go to the extra expense and trouble to use a different ISBN to identify each unique “title” of a print or digital book that they publish. That is the price paid for selling your book to bookstores and libraries.

The future for ISBNs

And this is also what puts the ISBN in danger of extinction. There were so many books published in the world that the ten-digit ISBN became obsolete in 1997, and the 13-digit ISBN had to replace it.The newer, longer, ISBN contains an EAN-13 three-digit code for the word, “book”. This does more than the old ten-digit ISBN because the 13-digit ISBN nicely fits books into the international scheme used for retail sales of all kinds of products.

Who knows when the 13-digit code will run out numbers? When will it have to be replaced by a longer code? And it’s also quite possible and I think, likely, that digital technology will transform the world of book publishing so that the very concept of book “title” as it is used by for the ISBN may itself become obsolete!

Note that the word “title” in book industry parlance refers not just to a particular title and subtitle the author attaches to a book.

“Title” also refers to a “set” or “fixed” content within a book that is described by the book’s bibliographic record (by librarians) or metadata (by digital book publishers.) Clearly digital technology is going to replace print technology, and digital technology, unlike print technology is not limited to a “set” content within a book.

Already digital books that are output in PDF format are quite easy to constantly revise and make changes to. That is one of the chief advantages in publishing a PDF book – the author and readers can keep up with fast-changing events in the field that a PDF book is written about.

Ebooks and audiobooks are also based on digital files that someday may be able to be rapidly revised by their authors. That all depends on how digital technology evolves, and on how much of the ebook/audiobook industry is controlled by proprietary digital book distributors. It also depends on the future of copyright and other systems for protecting property rights to ownership of ebook titles as well as ownership and leasing of individual copies of particular ebook titles. If digital books can be easily revised, there may be no such thing as an “edition” of a book.

With the passing of the print world may very well come the passing of the ISBN too! If that happens, how will we ever track the the contents attached to a digital book title? Defining a new edition of a print book now is a slippery thing. How will we define a new “edition” of a digital book in the future?  How many different editions, formats, and/or publishers could a single ebook title have, each of which requires a new ISBN? Who knows!

What is clear is that the expense of buying multiple ISBNs for a book title will, at least for now, continue to be an important issue for authors!

Note: Part one of this series is titled, “Why Your Book Needs an ISBN“.

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