What Does ISBN Mean?

What Does ISBN Mean?

Readers are sometimes confused when trying to order a book from bookstores, Amazon.com or the library and are asked for the ISBN code. ISBN is an acronym for ‘International Standard Book Number’. It is a code used to identify and keep track of books. It is usually printed on the dust jacket or inside cover of a book.

History of ISBN

In the 1960s, W. H. Smith (one of the largest book retailers in the United Kingdom) wanted to make a uniform system for the books it carried. W. H. Smith devised the ‘Standard Book Numbering’ (SBN) system. Later, the ‘International Organization for Standardization’ (ISO) adapted and approved the British SBN system for international use.

Until the beginning of the 21st century, the ISBN was a 10-digit code. As of January 2007, it has become a 13-digit code. This is because there are so many books being published now that there is a shortage of 10-digit combinations.

Meaning of ISBN

To understand what the code actually means, use the ISBN code for a novel by Kunal Basu as an example. The Opium Clerk was published by Phoenix in 2002 and its ISBN code reads as follows: 978-0-7538-1339-3.

  • ‘978’ is the prefix element. This code has its origin in the ‘European Article Number’ prefix. This code and others like it are used worldwide for marking retail goods.
  • ‘0’ is the registration group element. It refers to the language, country or geographical area where the book is published. In our example, ‘0’ shows that the book was first published in Great Britain.
  • ‘7538’ is the registration element. This refers to the publisher or imprint within the country or geographical area where the book is published. In our example, this part of the code refers to Phoenix.
  • ‘1339’ is the publication element. This is a specific reference to this publication within that particular publishing house. The ‘1339’ part of the code, therefore, is a specific reference to The Opium Clerk within Phoenix.
  • ‘3’ is the check digit. This is a number arrived at using a complicated formula involving the first 12 numbers in the code.

Vising a bookstore or the library in search of a book the next time should be a breeze – give the member of staff the book’s ISBN code and it will help them work more quickly and efficiently to locate a book. It will also avoid the problem of having the wrong book, which might have a similar title to the one requested, being delivered.


By Aneeta Sundararaj

This article was first published on Suite 101.com: http://suite101.com/article/what-does-isbn-mean-a256513


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