ISBN and ISSN Systems

ALA Library Fact Sheet 28

Instructive articles on obtaining the International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, for book publications, and on obtaining the International Standard Serial Number, on ISSN, for periodicals and serial publications, always appear in the Library and Book Trade AlmanacTM, formerly known as The Bowker Annual, which is published every year by Information Today, Inc. Below is information referring to the latest edition.

ISBN - International Standard Book Number

In the 2010 Library and Book Trade AlmanacTM, the 55th Edition, the article "How to Obtain an ISBN" appears on pages 539-543, written by Andy Weissberg and Louise Timko of the United States ISBN Agency. The article discloses that J. Whitaker & Sons Ltd. introduced the ISBN system to the UK in 1967, while R.R. Bowker introduced the ISBN system to the United States in 1968. Presently, the Technical Committee on Documentation of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO TC 46) is responsible for the international standard. The U.S. ISBN Agency is at R.R. Bowker, LLC.

The purpose of the ISBN is to coordinate and standardize the use of identifying numbers so that each ISBN is unique to a title, edition of a book, or monographic publication -- braille, microform, and electronic publications, as well as audiobooks, educational/instructional videos/DVDs and software -- published or produced by a specific publisher or producer.

To increase the numbering capacity of the ISBN, its number of digits was expanded from the original 10 (ISBN-10) to 13 (ISBN-13), effective January 1, 2007.

The ISBN-13 consists of thirteen digits separated into the following parts:

  • Prefix of "978" converts existing ISBN-10 to the ISBN-13 system (three digits)
  • Group or country identifier, national or geographic grouping of publishers (one digit)
  • Publisher or producer identifier (four digits)
  • Title identifier, particular title or edition of a title (four digits)
  • Check digit, for ISBN-13 validation (one digit)

The proper reference for the ISBN is for these five parts to be separated out by a space or hyphen, and preceded by the letters ISBN.


Assignment of ISBNs is handled by the U.S. ISBN Agency in conjunction with a title's publisher. For an ISBN application and information for a new title, or to find out about available ISBN-13 conversion services for an existing title, see the web site of the U.S. ISBN Agency, at:


ISSN - International Standard Serial Number

In the 2010 Library and Book Trade AlmanacTM, the 55th Edition, the article "How to Obtain an ISSN" appears on pages 544-545, written by the United States ISSN Center. The article explains that the ISSN was developed in the early 1970s to enable identification of serial publications at the international level. Administration is coordinated through the ISSN Network, an international intergovernmental organization within the UNESCO/UNISIST program.

The number itself -- unlike the coded digits of the ISBN -- has no significance other than as a brief, unique, and unambiguous identifier; an ISSN consists of eight digits, specifically two groups of four digits, in Arabic numerals 0 to 9, except for the last -- or check -- digit, which can be an X. Its proper reference is for the two groups of four digits to be separated by a hyphen and preceded by the letters ISSN.

The ISSN is a U.S. standard, ANSI/NISO Z39.9, and an international standard, recently updated to ISO 3297: 2007. This 2007 ISSN standard adds the Linking ISSN (ISSN-L), which works within several established electronic information systems to link various media versions (print, online, CD-ROM) of a single title together, allowing for fully complete media records of an individual serial resource. Linking ISSNs are preceded by the letters ISSN-L.

Assignment of ISSNs is handled by the U.S. ISSN Center at the Library of Congress. To request an ISSN, application forms and instructions are available at the web site of the U.S. ISSN Center, at:


Last updated: January 2011


For more information on this or other fact sheets, contact the ALA Library Reference Desk by telephone: 800-545-2433, extension 2153; fax: 312-280-3255; e-mail:; or regular mail: ALA Library, American Library Association, 50 East Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60611-2795.