ISBN Information

History of the ISBN System


In the mid-1960s as computer technology began to become an important part of trade, publishers began implementing their own, in-house, numbering systems in order to do business efficiently with their trading partners.

Two such systems introduced at that time were those of United Kingdom publisher J Whitaker & Sons Ltd of London, from 1967 and that of R R Bowker in the USA, of 1968.

In the United Kingdom at that time, the major book wholesaler and retailer W H Smith moved into new computer-controlled facilities, whose support was a major influence in the fledgling numbering systems.

The help of the Publishers Association was sought to help develop a system with the intention of rationalising the numerous disparate systems that were being implemented. The International Standards Organisation (ISO) asked the British Standards Institute to become the secretariat for an international working party. From this, the ISO developed ISO Technical Committee 46 on Information and Documentation to develop the United Kingdom system for international usage.


Work in 1968 and 1969 resulted, in 1972, in the creation of the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) as the first edition of ISO standard 2108.


In 1978 the second edition of the standard came into being, and in 1992 the third edition was published. The first through to the third editions of the standard used a 10-digit ISBN. For details of how the 10-digit ISBN works, see the Anatomy of a 10-digit ISBN page.


The fourth edition was published in May, 2005. It made the major revision of changing the ISBN from a 10-digit identifier to one of 13 digits. The main reason for the change was to increase the numbering capacity of the system, which was forecast to run out of numbers for new books in the coming years. From 1st January 2007 all ISBNs issued conform to the new 13-digit standard. For details of how the new 13-digit system works, see the Anatomy of a 13-digit ISBN page. At the same time, the ISBN system has merged with the universal product code system know as EAN.

In March 2014 it was announced by the International ISBN Agency that work had begun on a three-year ISO project to revise the ISBN standard. A working group of more than 30 international experts plus key organisations in liaison such as GS1, with the executive director of the International ISBN Agency, Stella Griffiths,as its convenor.