A Short and Incomplete History of Book Numbers

stack of booksThe last few months, I’ve been helping my dad to catalog our family’s somewhat extensive collection of books. In the course of this project, I’ve learned a great deal about the history of book numbering.

You might think that cataloging a book collection would require nothing more than scanning each book’s ISBN and letting some online service fill in all the bibliographic data. But there are three things that prevent this: First, we’re creating the catalog on a computer without an Internet connection, as there’s none available in the room that holds most of our family library. Second, none of the programs we’ve investigated that we might use for this supports all the fields my dad is interested in (for example: all three of copyright, publication, and acquisition date; multiple distinct copies; and most importantly, a field for arbitrary notes). And third, and most significantly, most of our books are old enough that they don’t have ISBNs; the International Standard Book Number hadn’t been created yet when they were published. But there are other numbers by which some of the books were identified.

(As an aside, other than the one Wikipedia article I cite below, all of this is our deductions from our experience cataloging the books in the last few months, informed to some extent by my dad’s memories of buying the books in the ’60s and the following decades.)

Early last century, perhaps soon after paperback books became common, some publishers began to print their books’ “catalog numbers” on them. As the practice developed, some publishers used prefixes to to designate particular imprints, or to indicate price (such as “T-” for thirty-five cents, or “F-” for forty-five).

In 1966 (according to Wikipedia), Professor Gordon Foster of Trinity College, Dublin, developed the “Standard Book Number” to consistently identify books from various publishers. Several, but not all, publishers adopted this standard, and several of those that did used variations on it that I can only call … odd. A truly standard SBN is a nine-digit number, much like an ISBN (and in fact adding a zero to the beginning of an SBN makes an ISBN, though perhaps the check digit needs to be changed), but there are two somewhat common anomalies.

The first is the rarest. In each SBN or ISBN, part of the number is always the same between books from a given publisher and imprint, while part is book-specific. In an SBN, that part is usually the publisher’s catalog number, which by that point was usually four digits regardless of the publisher, without any of the prefixes I mentioned above. But some publishers put in their entire catalog number, including the letters, making the books’ “SBN”s not really “numbers” at all.

The second, more common, variation, is perhaps somewhat easier to explain. As in an ISBN, the last digit of a true SBN is a check digit. But some—perhaps even most—publishers routinely replaced that check digit with the price of the book (in cents, originally two digits and then going to three when prices over a dollar started to become common). Late in the period, when SBNs started to be printed with the other bibliographic data on the back of the title page (instead of only on the spine—and barcodes were unheard-of for books back then, I’m told), some of the publishers started appending the price to the check digit instead of replacing it, while a few others printed the unmodified SBN inside the book but put the mangled form on the spine.

And then ISBNs caught on; that standard has “stuck” for several decades (the expansion to 13 digits from 10 notwithstanding), and shows no sign of going away.


3 thoughts on “A Short and Incomplete History of Book Numbers

    • We’ve been working on the “main shelves” (I think at least nine shelves, each containing, I think, over a hundred books), which are largely fiction, so far; we started in Kipling and went to the end of the alphabet, then started again just before Kipling and are working our way backwards. The paperbacks from which we deduced these trivia about SBNs are largely science fiction of the ’60s and ’70s (published by Ace and Bantam, mostly, I think), but also include some mysteries and such from that period, and a somewhat large collection (inherited from my grandmother, I think) of Grace Livingston Hill novels. We’ll probably do the “miscellaneous nonfiction” shelves (only two of them, with only a couple of dozen books each) on the opposite wall of my dad’s office next, and follow that with the shelves of SF anthologies and his college and grad school textbooks.


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