Thursday, November 23


I have to wonder if the transition to ISBN-13 will cause the crumbling of western civilization.

Recently, I noticed my newest books now sport TWO (2!) ISBNs: ISBN-10 and ISBN-13. The new ones are needed in much the same way the phone companies had to adapt new area codes to deal with the plethora of cellphones and other communication devices (does anyone remember the pager? - now we just use Text Messaging instead). Since I keep an online list of all my books (so I don't buy duplicates) I'll have to adapt them to ISBN-13 which arrives 1/1/2007. I guess this is good; that means that more books are being published, and the demise of The Paper Book (to make way for e-Books) is still A Future Event.

I haven't been this excited since I started getting 5 different phone directories every year.

What makes this a sad event is that I was just getting the hang of the ISBN-10 system. I figured out that the first digit always seemed to be a 0 or 1; followed by a hyphen; followed by a code (of semi-random length) indicating the publisher; followed by a number for the book itself; followed by a final hyphen and what I assumed was an edition number (which sometimes became -X). Turns out the last digit was a "check digit" and had nothing to do with the edition: wow.

Yes, I could read the ISBN FAQ but that would suck all the joy out of deciphering the scheme. I suppose by the time They transition to ISBN-next (inevitable) I'll have it all figured out.

The ISBN-10 scheme would conceivably produce duplicates when the hyphens were removed (0-13-123456-4 is the same as 0-1312-3456-4, right?) but the online bookstores seem to remove them (for URLs, etc.) without consequence. The new ISBN-13 appeared to be an ISBN-10 with a prefix "978", but there's more to it than that (which I discovered after reading another ISBN explanation). It turns out the conversion of ISBN-10 to ISBN-13 digits requires a re-calculation of the check digit, which is done programmatically. Bummer.

Worth noting: my oldest books don't have ISBNs : only Library of Congress book numbers. I suspect there was a transition back in those days, too, although I don't remember civilization collapsing. I may have been in class that day.

Ref: International Standard Book Number = ISBN. This has nothing to do with the DDC (Dewey Decimal System), for which I am eternally grateful.

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