Searching Print or Electronic ISBNs

ANSS Subject and Bibliographic Access Committee
Question/Answer on cataloging issues – April 2015

By Isabel del Carmen Quintana, Harvard University

Question:  Why do searches for print or E-ISBNs sometimes yield the opposite results?

RDA, Resource Description and Access, is the current set of cataloging rules. In RDA every “manifestation” of a work is recorded as such. A work is defined in RDA as “a distinct intellectual or artistic creation (i.e. the intellectual or artistic content).” A manifestation is defined as “the physical embodiment of an expression of a work.” Therefore we can have the work, George Michael’s album Faith, and have various manifestations: the original LP from 1986, a CD version, an iTunes version, etc.

It is important to let the user know which manifestation we are describing, and therefore which manifestation may be available at their library. Catalogers put a lot of information related to the manifestation on each bibliographic record. For example, we will list the publisher or date. These usually change depending on the manifestation.

However, librarians also add information that simply describes the type of manifestation. We add machine readable fields that identify the record as an online resource, so that indexing systems can display this record when a patron issues a query requesting only e-resources. We also add human readable fields that have this same information. For example, catalogers add “1 online resource” to the extent part of the bibliographic record. This is the area where we usually see x number of pages.

Therefore we make an effort to assure that patrons can distinguish e-versions of works from physical versions of works, as well as various physical versions of works from each other. We would not put information concerning only the LP on the bibliographic record that described the CD. Nor would we put information unique to the VHS video on the bibliographic record for the DVD version.

In RDA (rule we are instructed to record identifiers such as ISBNs. The corresponding Library of Congress/Program for Cooperative Cataloging Policy Statement states the following:

When transcribing multiple ISBNs, transcribe first the number that is applicable to the manifestation being described; transcribe other numbers in the order presented, with appropriate qualification to distinguish.

Therefore we would record the following:

020 |a 3978787654 |q (pbk.)

020 |a 3978765240 |q (hdbk.)

We are basically transcribing the ISBNs that are printed in the book, listing the one that corresponds to our version first and then listing the others in the order that they appear. Still, the ISBNs need to correspond to the “manifestation being described.”

The policy statement goes on to instruct us to record any other ISBNs that appear in the book (i.e. those that do not correspond to our manifestation) in a subfield “z” of the 020 field, instead of the subfield “a.” The subfield “z” is for a “canceled or invalid” ISBN. So, if we have a hardback edition of a book, and we had multiple ISBNs printed on the title page verso, we would record them as follows:

020 |a 5043748595 |q (hdbk.)

020 |a 5043772885 |q (hbk.)

020 |z 5043747115 |q (Ebook)

020 |z 5043712905 |q (large print)

So why then, when we issue a search for a print ISBN, do we sometimes get the ebook, and vice versa?

There are probably several reasons. First, most library catalogs have information from various sources. Some of these sources may not set up separate records for each manifestation. Publishers, for example, frequently list all the ISBNs for a single work on the same record. Some libraries may also find this option appealing, and choose to create single bibliographic records for various manifestations.

Another chief reason is that many systems do not differentiate between a “valid” ISBN (020 |a) or an invalid ISBN (020 |z). The reasoning is that patrons would prefer to search a number, even if it is invalid, since that invalid number was probably printed incorrectly in the text. The problem is that the same subfield “z” that we use for truly invalid numbers, is also used for valid ISBNs that belong to different manifestations.

Finally, some libraries deliberately put e-book ISBNs on the same record as the print ISBN because their patrons find this information useful. They may find it useful because their public catalogs do not collocate these records well if they are not on the same record. They may find it useful because they do not own the e-version but want their patrons to know it is available. There could be many reasons. The bottom line though is that they have a use for this data.

There are probably other reasons as well as to why we see so many print and e-ISBNs on the same records. Although, it can be confusing to patrons and librarians alike when e-book ISBNs are sometimes on a separate record and sometimes on the same record as the print, perhaps this is the sort of confusion we accept in the information world these days. We are used to getting more information, instead of less; getting false hits being preferable to missing possible sources altogether. Still, it’s good to understand some of the reasons that our searches yield, let’s call them “interesting,” results.