In a move that could cause problems for schools with older versions of library automation or book-cataloging software, the International Standard Book Number (ISBN), the unique identifier used to track published materials worldwide, is being changed from a 10-digit format to a 13-digit code. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) ordered the change to conform the code to a unified worldwide numbering system and to provide more ISBNs to parts of the publishing industry and areas of the world that do not have enough of the numbers.

Library and publishing groups say the move, which is expected to be complete by 2007, is akin to the year 2000 (Y2K) problem, which forced schools and businesses worldwide to upgrade their software to ensure it could recognize the change from 1999 to 2000 correctly without reverting to a date of 1900.

In this case, they say, schools and other users of book-tracking software will need to make sure their systems can accommodate a 13-digit ISBN instead of the old 10-digital number, which will require some schools to upgrade their programs.

Though the new millennium came with relatively few hitches, Y2K’s gentle passing has not allayed Patricia Harris’s concerns about the coming change to the ISBN standard.Harris is the executive director of the National Information Standards Organization, a group that deals with standards in the library and information world. “This truck is coming down the road at us,” Harris said. “There are folks in the IT world of school systems who need to know about ISBN-13 and prepare for it.”

The transition process officially began on the “sunrise” date of January 1, 2005. Publishers are being asked to phase in the ISBN-13 code over the next two years, before the change becomes final on January 1, 2007. During this transitional phase, publishers will begin to provide book vendors with both a 10-digit code and a 13-digit code. Larger publishers already have begun to do so. When the change becomes final, retailers and suppliers–including textbook suppliers, schools, and libraries–will need to be able to read, process, and store all ISBN numbers as 13-digit codes.

The ISBN was introduced in the mid-1960s as a way to simplify order processing and inventory control in the book industry as publishers and distributors began to consider using computers to meet those needs. It is a unique, machine-readable number used to identify books and other published materials at every step of the supply chain.

One hundred fifty-nine countries and territories are ISBN members. The code has helped make the international book trade more navigable. The change will bring the ISBN code into total compliance with the 13-digit European Article Number (EAN), which will further streamline international trade. Now, a supplemental three-digit prefix must be added to the ISBN-10 when ISBN publishers trade with EAN nations.

Another reason for the change is that the number of available ISBN numbers is dwindling. The 10 billion possible numeric combinations presented by the ten-digit system might seem like plenty, but the ISBN is actually more limited.

ISBN is a hierarchical system that designates certain values to the assigned number. Blocks of ISBNs are allocated by the International ISBN Agency to specific regional groups or countries. Those blocks are identified by a “group identifier,” which is the first element of an ISBN number. Within each regional group or country, blocks of ISBNs are allocated by the national ISBN agency to specific publishers according to their publishing output. Those blocks are called the “publisher identifier.”

“We issue about 11,000 blocks a year [in the United States],” said Michael Cairns, executive vice president and general manager for R. R. Bowker, the maintenance agency that handles the ISBN standard in the U.S. “Most of those blocs are for ten ISBN numbers and less. Seven or eight thousand of those blocks are for smaller publishing houses.” The larger publishers have already purchased enough blocs to last them well into the future, Cairns said. Once the 2007 date has passed, publishers will still be able to use existing ISBN numbers along with the three-digit prefix already used for international trade.

New media such as online publishing and publishing on demand, as well as DVD, books on tape or CD, and other developments in the publishing world, have further strained the number of ISBNs available worldwide. Any shortage of numbers in one area of the global numerical system threatens the functionality of the system as a whole.

The ability to accommodate the longer numbers is also an issue. Librarians will be unable to enter the new ISBN data into a fixed field that was designed to hold only 10 digits, Harris said. Such 10-digit fields will need to be changed to a variable-length field that can accommodate 13 digits.

“What [this changeover] demands is that you conduct your own internal audit,” Harris said. “You must take a close look at your [cataloging and accounting] systems, do your homework, and decide how [your systems will] be impacted. A simple fix may be all that’s needed. It all depends on how robust your current system is and what your data-exchange needs are.”

Another thing to remember, Harris said, “is that you’re going to have to be in touch with your business partners who also use the ISBN. [Schools] need to find out how [those partners] are planning to handle the transition, what their data-exchange needs are, et cetera.”

Richard Boss, a senior consultant with Information Systems Consultants Inc. who has also worked as a library technology consultant since 1978, said he believes the changeover will cause problems for only a few schools.

“I think it’s excessive to say this is equivalent to Y2K,” Boss said. “The issue is a fairly straightforward one. There is no reason that an automated system can’t accommodate [information] fields of different lengths. It becomes an issue of sorting. Are you going to sort all the tens first, then the 13s? Will you sort the 13s and then the tens? The Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal [systems] are of different lengths. We’ve been sorting them since 1968.”

What it comes down to, Boss said, is whether schools have existing maintenance contracts with their vendors.

“For the vast majority of the 15,000 libraries in this country that are automated, the vendors who worked for them addressed [the Y2K problem] in a timely manner,” he said. “There is basically no multi-user, browser-based system that doesn’t have a maintenance agreement [included].” According to Boss, “only a few hundred” users of these types of systems do not have vendor support.

“Two of the major vendors have announced that their products are already compliant,” he said. “Between now and the end of 2005, almost all of the vendors in the industry will have done this.”

Boss said that schools and libraries using Windows-based systems, however, face a different problem. “In many cases, [those libraries] bought software packages without further support. They are probably going to have to purchase an update.”

Susan Huang, manager of the product line management team for Follett Corp., a company that provides library resources to K-12 schools, said her company will address the needs of clients as it develops through the 2007 deadline.

“We feel like we’re on the front end of [the move to ISBN-13],” Huang said. “All the software updates we’re releasing in May and June will be equipped to deal with that issue.” The functionality to read both ISBN-10 and ISBN-13 will be written into these updates, she said, which will address Windows-based systems in May and browser-based systems in June.

“We send out updates twice a year,” Huang said. “[Customers] can buy a maintenance agreement with [Follett], and most of our client base has a maintenance agreement. [The ISBN-13 functionality] would just be part of maintenance.”

Huang said that, although updates are available through the company’s web site, the software must be updated in sequence. So if a library bought a version of the Windows-based software three years ago, did not have a maintenance agreement with Follett, and had not paid for the biannual updates, then that library would have to purchase the latest version of software outright. “Customers can’t just buy a patch to deal with the ISBN changeover,” she said.

Huang added, “A small number of our clients do not pay their maintenance support renewal. They would have to pay that support renewal if they want the update come May.” She also said that clients who use the Windows-based product will have to remember “to go to the web site and download and install the updated version.”

Berit Nelson, vice president of product management for Sirsi Corp., another library resource company, said the switch will not pose a problem for Sirsi’s customers. “It hasn’t been a significant change for us,” she said. “We don’t anticipate ISBN-13 causing any problems.”

Nelson said the Sirsi system does not limit the number of characters permitted when entering information into the field in which the ISBN is recorded. “As soon as we start indexing a longer record, it will be available for searching and [will] match [data] points for de-duplication” of records, she said.

The Sirsi system currently prompts the user to verify information entered into the ISBN field that does not conform to the 10-digit standard. Once verified, the system records the approved data. “We are updating those optional validation routines this year so that it can accommodate both the ISBN-10 and the ISBN-13,” Nelson said. She said that update would be available sometime this year.

Nelson added that there has been discussion among various standards groups about developing more sophisticated duplicate detection routines to accommodate the ISBN-13. But “there hasn’t been consensus yet on how to do that,” she said.


ISBN system

National Information Standards Organization: ISBN-13 information

Follett Corp.

Sirsi Corp.