The Work

It’s Not Just ISBNs Anymore: ISNI

The ISNI is a newly-ratified standard – ISNI stands for International Standard Name Identifier. It’s 16 digits – 15 numbers and a check digit (which could be an X).

It looks something like this:

ISNI 1244 5677 8198 0239

Here’s what it’s for: Names.

Yeah, seriously. It’s for assigning to names of people – specifically, public identities. So an author, a singer, a company name (as companies are public identities too), or fictional characters. The ISNI identifies Madonna (not Madonna Louise Ciccone), Random House, or Sherlock Holmes.

At this point, you are probably shaking your head and muttering, “Why????” And, of course, there is an answer!

Sometimes two authors have the same name. Thomas Wolfe, who wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again”, is a different person from Tom Wolfe, who wrote “Bonfire of the Vanities”. Or one author has multiple ways of spelling his or her public identity – Fyodor Dostoevsky is the same person as Fedor Dostoievski.

The identification of these names – distinguishing them or assuring us that they are indeed the same person – helps a lot when you have so many books from so many countries flooding the market.

The obvious next question is, what about pseudonyms or aliases?

Here’s where you’ll be annoyed – they get separate ISNIs. That’s right, Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine are separate public identities. As are Stephen King and Richard Bachmann. Or David Johansen and Buster Poindexter!

Once again, the identifiers don’t establish the relationship among these names. They just identify the fact that there are different names. The metadata for each identifier refers to the other name (and ISNI for that name if it’s a public identity) and describes the relationship between them.

So how does this all help get more books into the hands of more people? Basically, in search results. When website databases use ISNIs, they can cleanly distinguish the books of authors with the same name who are truly different people (and not have to rely on middle initials or other unreliable text differentiators). They can show customers all the books of a particular author whose name gets spelled in different ways (really important for authors whose names are not in the Latin alphabet!). And it keeps the books of authors with pseudonyms distinct and separate – maybe Ruth Rendell never intended any of us to know that she was also Barbara Vine.

All of this means that people find the exact books they are looking for. It keeps readers – book-seekers – happy.

More info about ISNIs is here.

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