What’s In a Number? ISBN’s and EAN’s

May 6, 2011

 Have you ever wondered what those ISBN’s and EAN’s are all about? They are clearly useful for distinguishing books (and book-like products such as audiobooks), especially those that happen to have the same title, as well as different editions or formats of books with the same title and author.  As such, they are indispensable for cataloging, marketing, and trading in books, not to mention verifying RINC’s.  But why do they look the way they do and how did they come about?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number.  Until the mid-2000’s, this was a 10 digit number indicating issuing country, publisher, and title, with a check digit to validate the other numbers (see below).  The national ISBN Agency issued blocks of numbers to publishers, who then assigned specific numbers to titles from their authorized blocks. 

Since 2007, the ISBN agency has required publishers who issue ISBN’s to issue, and retailers to accept, a 13 digit number (ISBN-13) to assure that unique numbers can be issued to new titles indefinitely into the future.  Going to 13 digits also allows us to join an international standard called EAN, which stands for Universal Article Number (originally European Article Number).  If you compare an ISBN-10 with an EAN or ISBN-13, you’ll notice they differ only with the prefix 978 for EAN’s (necessary to include because new titles will soon go to 979), and the last check digit.

ISBN’s came into use in the 1960’s when European and American book publishers increasingly were automating and saw the need and usefulness of standard identifying numbers.  The United States adopted ISBN’s in 1968, with R. R. Bowker serving as the national ISBN Agency.

For more information: http://www.isbn.org/standards/home/index.asp.

ISBN-13 for Dummies, published by the Book Industry Study Group. 

Anatomy of an ISBN

0-8028-0768-7 –  country where ISBN is assigned

0-8028-0768-7 – publisher

0-8028-0768-7 – title

0-8028-0768-7 – check digit

posted by Darren


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