“Identifiers Roundup” — LITA Standards Interest Group in conjunction with NISO

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This is a report of the presentations from the LITA Standards Interest Group at the ALA Annual Conference, 24-Jul-2006, in New Orleans. Pat Stevens, interim director of NISO, moderated the panel discussion.

ISSN Regina Reynolds, Library of Congress (U.S. ISSN Center)


There are 80 ISSN centers worldwide with about 150 people associated with the assigning of ISSNs.

The ISSN International Center is located in Paris. It assigns the prefixes to ISSN centers and holds a master copy of descriptive metadata -- the "Key Title" plus other metadata elements in MARC format -- for every assigned ISSN. It also provides documentation, a manual (about 80-100 pages in length) and support for new centers coming on board.

Activities for ISSN matters comes from a Governing board elected by the membership. The directors of ISSN centers also meeting annuallyto resolve operational issues. An "ISSN Users Group" has recently been formed as well. The ISSN standard itself is undergoing revision now.


According to the standard and in practice, there is no charge to receiving an ISSN assignment. The ISSN International Centre's budget is about 1.5M euros/year (55-60% is salaries). As sources of revenue, one third comes from the host country of the ISSN International Centre (France), one third from membership dues of the national ISSN centers, and one third from the sales of derivatives of the central ISSN database.

For the U.S. this translates to about $120K/year dues to the International Centre, plus the cost of staff salaries and benefits, office space, and operational expenses. The Library of Congress pays this out of its budget.


As of June 18, 2006, there are about 1,252,191 records in the central ISSN catalog. That figure grows by between 50,000 and 60,000 records per each year. About the same number of records each year change as a result of maintenance activities.

The U.S. assigns about 6,000 ISSNs per year, which is considered a low number because publishers should be assigning different ISSNs to different media types.


The Library of Congress funds the membership dues and operational costs for being the ISSN assignment center for the U.S. Although LC makes use of ISSN assignments, it is an outwardly-directed program that supports publishers. Future funding could be uncertain (c.f. the current debate over series authority records).

The assignment center receives a lot of "Vanity" ISSN requests: personal newsletters, publications of only local interest ("the town gardening club"), and those seeking a "free" standard number (since there is a fee for receiving and ISBN assignment). The rules typically applied to requests for ISSNs are based on whether the serial is "in the chain of trade" -- will it be cited elsewhere or included in indexing and abstracting services or in OpenURL resolvers. Recently the blogging community have been seeking ISSNs, but this has been ruled as not an appropriate use of the ISSN standard.

Future ISSN Network Directions

Sustaining funding and enhancing use of the ISSN through the development of new products and distribution services. There is also an increased need for automation. The standard practice now is to hand-craft each metadata record for each number assignment. The nature of this assignment process doesn't scale well.

One question from the audience was about the possibility of running out of numbers. Almost 10,000,00 individual numbers are available for assignment, of which only about 2,000,000 have been used. The pressure of running out of numbers may cause some structural changes to be adopted. One such change that could be considered is the addition of a suffix for media type -- a journal in print and the electronic manifestation of that journal would have the same ISSN (which is different than the standard practice now) and be distinguishable from a suffix added to the base ISSN.

Brian Green, International ISBN Agency

Brief History

The ISBN system was devised in the late 1960s and first published as an ISO standard (ISO 2108) in 1972. By comparison to other identifiers, the Universal Product Code (UPC) was introduced in 1973 and the European Article Numbering-Uniform Code Council (EAN-13) in 1997.

It has universally adopted as the key identifier for books. The standard was last rewritten in 1992 and last revised in May 2005. The 13-digit ISBN comes into being on the 1st of January next year.

By definition in the standard, ISBNs are only for books. It is a "manifestation" or supply-chain identifier. Coverage includes digital monographic publications on physical carriers (CDs) or online. A separate identifier required for each electronic version separately traded. ISBNs can also be allocated to parts of books traded separately (e.g. chapters).

The migration to 13-digit ISBNs to be encompassed in the EAN-13 standard was an interesting problem. In the EAN-13 barcode system, prefixes are assigned based on country (e.g. "Germany"), not on products (e.g. "books"). So the question was how to incorporate internationally established yet product-specific ISBN into the country-specific EAN-13 system. The answer? Create a new country, "Bookland", and give it a country prefix 978 (with 979 in reserve). GS1 (formerly EAN Int.) and ISBN now discussing the incorporation of ISBN into RFID tags as part of EPC (Electronic Product Code) standard.

Management and Governance

When the standard was adopted in 1972, the Berlin State Library offered to host it at its own expense. As a result, there was no legal "ISBN" entity, no formal governance procedures, no governing board, and the members of the national agency met once a year and made changes to practice by consensus.

In 2005, the International ISBN Agency Ltd was created, and it will take over management and governance of ISBN in 2006. The International ISBN Agency is a not-for-profit, limited by guarantee organization with the guarantors/members are the national agency (160 in all). Each national agency has one vote in the governing body with a governing board elected by the members. ISO is keen on this change because it prefers to contract with an organization to be the maintenance agency of a standard; this is now possible.

Structure and Process

The assignment of ISBNs, like ISSNs, is a highly distributed process. The International ISBN Agency assigns group identifier to national agencies. The identifier is a variable number of digits within the 13 digits and is based on size of publishing industry represented by the local agency. The national agency assigns the publisher an identifier prefix; it, too, is a variable number of digits based on anticipated number of books to be published and needing assignment. Publishers themselves assign the product identifier based on their allocated range. There are few rules for the assignment of numbers.

The move to 13-digit ISBN means that all 160 agencies have to understand the change and tweak their systems. (Each country has their own system and software, but standard management tools are now under development.)Most agencies have worked with libraries and the book trade in their countries to facilitate change.

Unlike the ISSN international agency, there is no central repository of metadata about assigned ISBNs. ISO 2108 states that 'publishers "shall" supply local agency or its nominee with basic information about the publication to which ISBN is assigned' but in reality this is unenforcable once the prefix has been given to the publisher. Publishers, of course, want their items to be bought, so they generally will participate in a local books-in-print effort. The International ISBN Agency publishes a list of identifier prefixes assigned to national agencies (the Publishers International ISBN Directory or PIID). National agencies compile or collaborate in producing a local books in print (for instance, Bowker in the US, Nielsen BookData in UK). In many cases, the compilation is aligned with a national bibliography effort.


The standard states that national agencies may charge "reasonable" fees for assignment of an ISBN, and most do. Beginning in 2005, national agencies pay membership fees to the International ISBN agency based on a combination of GNP and publishing turnover; it ranges from 250 to 18,000 Euros per year. International Agency uses membership funds for managing and promoting the ISBN system, providing training, and creating software to help member agencies.

Chuck Koscher, Technology Director, CrossRef

Service Infrastructure provided by CrossRef and DOI

CrossRef itself is not an identifier-assigning organization. Rather it makes use of the other identifier organizations to provide the infrastructure for resolving identifiers. In practice, it is made up of three entities:

  • Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI): Develops and maintains the Handle system. It is a technology partner to the International DOI Foundation (IDF) and an advocate for broad technical solutions.
  • International DOI Foundation's Digital Object Identifier (DOI): Develops and maintains the DOI standard and is an advocate for DOI-related technology.
  • CrossRef: Operates a metadata look-up service for the registration of metadata about a DOI identifier, servicing queries to discover the appropriate DOI identifier, and redirection of resolver requests to provide a stable space for these persistent identifiers as the underlying objects move around. CrossRef also sustains a community of users (publishers, libraries, aggregators, secondaries) making use of DOIs as well as monitoring and maintaining the integrity of the resolver service (quality of metadata and links to objects).

Structure and Process

A DOI, as expressed as a URL, has three parts:

  • A resolver address (http: //dx.doi.org/) which itself is not a formal part of the DOI.
  • The DOI Prefix (10.1016) assigned to publishers by the DOI maintenance organization.
  • The DOI Suffix (S0040-4039(01)80789-9) created by publishers.

DOIs are a special subset of the CNRI Handles; any CNRI Handle that beings with "10." is a DOI prefix. A DOI and a CNRI Handle are technically the same thing sharing the same resolving infrastructure. One can resolve a CNRI handle against a DOI resolver (for now, may be blocked in the future) and one can resolve a DOI against a CNRI handle resolver.

To assign a DOI, a publisher sends the article metadata to CrossRef with the assigned DOI prefix and publisher-defined suffix. Systems can query the CrossRef database using citation metadata to determine if a DOI exists for that citation. If so, a user interface can present the referring article as an active link to a DOI resolver. When the user selects the link, the browser contacts a DOI resolver and receives in return a URL to the reference document.


It costs an estimated $200,000 to $300,000 per year in both infrastructure and operational expenses to maintain the CrossRef resolvers and community. There is a membership fee required to be a member of CrossRef and a fee for each DOI assigned by the member. There is also an on-going fee for each assigned DOI.