The Work

Searching for Emery Koltay

I was fortunate to be in the UK for the FutureBook 2012 conference, followed by an International DOI Foundation meeting in Oxford. While having dinner with Stella Griffiths, the Executive Director of ISBN International, and Beat Barblan, the Director of Identifier Services for Bowker (and my boss) we talked a little bit about the early days of EDI and commerce-oriented book numbering systems.

Stella brought up Emery Koltay, whom neither Beat nor I had heard of. But apparently he and David Whitaker (presumably one of the sons of “J. Whitaker & Sons,” publisher of British Books in Print as well as Whitaker’s Almanack) developed what became the ISBN. J. Whitaker & Sons eventually merged with several other companies to form BookData, and was ultimately acquired by Nielsen. Emery Koltay…worked at Bowker and eventually headed up the ISBN Agency in the US.

Which – well, apparently Emery Koltay had had enough adventures in his lifetime so that settling down to a career of what amounts to arithmancy and ancient runes was a welcome relief. This is his obituary (originally sent by Stella, and which I later found online):

Emery I. Koltay of Eastchester, NY passed away on August 23, 2012, after a long illness. He was born in the Transylvania region of Romania December 22, 1921. During WWII he escaped from several Hungarian work camps and survived the war in Budapest hiding under an assumed name. After the war he returned to Romania where he completed his education and started a family. In 1958 he was arrested by the Securitate, secret police, and spent four years in a communist prison for aiding the escape of Jews from the regime. In 1963 he emigrated with the family to the U.S. where he established himself as editor and publisher of reference books. He also took a lead in working with the library of Congress, developing and implementing the international book numbering system for U.S. publishing. Klara, his wife of sixty one years, died in 2007. He is survived by two children, four grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Yeah, my jaw dropped too. Six years after getting out of work camps, hiding, oppression, and communist prison, he introduced ISBNs into the US book supply chain.

Apparently he continued working at Bowker (even after “retirement”) until 1996. I wish I had known him.

4 thoughts on “Searching for Emery Koltay

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