How to Reconstruct Old ISBNs for Use Today

by Joel Friedlander on January 12, 2012 · 8 comments

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I received an inquiry recently from a reader who acquired International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) a long time ago and wanted to know a few things:

  1. Were the ISBNs still good? Could they be used?
  2. How could he translate the old 10-digit ISBNs to the new 13-digit format?
  3. Oh, also, he lost his ISBN logbook, so he needs to know if there’s a way to reconstruct the whole set.

Funny about that. I went through this exact same process a few years ago. My logbook was long gone, I had ISBNs that dated from the 1980s, the whole thing.

Here’s how I went about reconstructing the ISBNs and how you can too, if you’re in the same situation as my reader.

Now, there’s probably a really elegant solution to this problem. It might rely on the mathematics behind the computations that drive the ISBN.

But this article isn’t it. This is a pure trail-and-error hack, with one main virtue: it works.

Answering the Old ISBN Questions

I could assure my reader about his first question. ISBNs never wear out, expire, or go bad. You can use old ISBNs with no trouble.

The second question was easily solved with a utility from Bowker, the ISBN provider in the U.S.:

Official ISBN 10- to 13-Digit Converter

Now onto the tough part.

First, you need to understand how to read the ISBN to follow along. You can see this post for a complete description:

Self-Publishing Basics: How to Read an ISBN

Here’s a typical old-style, 10-digit ISBN:

0-936385-11-1

Suppose this was the only ISBN you had. With this one number you can figure out all the rest of the ISBNs in your block. Here’s how.

Look at that ISBN again. the “0-936385-” is never going to change. The “0″ indicates a language group, and the “936385″ is the publisher prefix. In this case it’s assigned to my publishing company, Marin Bookworks.

The “11″ is simply a sequential number. With a 6-digit publisher prefix, like mine, you can have 100 unique ISBNs. So we know that the ISBNs just before and just after this one will look like this:

0-936385-09-?
0-936385-10-?
0-936385-11-1
0-936385-12-?
0-936385-13-?

See the pattern? So far, so good. We now have the basic structure and we could fill out all 100 spots, right? Except for those question marks.

In the sample, the “1″ at the end of the 0-936385-11-1 is a check digit. It’s derived through a complex mathematical formula. That way it’s easy to tell if the ISBN is correctly written, or if a mistake was made in transcribing it.

So how are we going to find out those pesky check digits? Trial and error.

ISBN check digit formula

Of course, you could always just do the math (Wikipedia)

Let’s go back to the 10- to 13-digit converter. As it happens, if you put an incorrect code into the converter, it will reject it.

What this means is that all we have to do is put in the code up to the “?” and start trying digits one at a time until we don’t get the “Conversion failed. Please enter valid 10 or 13 digit ISBN” error message.

(This is the complete set of check digits: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and “X” for 10.)

I did this with the one of the ISBNs above. First I tried a check digit of “0″ then “1″ then “2″ but each time I got the error message.

When I got to “3″ the converter accepted it as a valid ISBN. Voila! At the same time, it gave me the 13-digit version. Here they are:

0-936385-10-3
978-0-936385-10-5

Notice that the check digits are different. You have to check each of the ISBNs through the converter to make sure you have the check digits right.

Now, I admit this is a crude method. Its one virtue is that it works. If you don’t have 100 or 1,000 ISBNs to reconstruct, it can save you a lot of time.

Perhaps readers know of an easier solution to this problem?

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    { 7 comments… read them below or add one }

    Russell Phillips January 12, 2012 at 1:34 am

    There is a check digit calculator, for both 10 and 13 digit ISBNs, at http://www.hahnlibrary.net/libraries/isbncalc.html It will also convert between 10 and 13 digit ISBNs.

    That calculator will only do one ISBN at a time, though, so I put together a spreadsheet that will calculate check digits for ISBN-10 and ISBN-13:
    http://rpbook.co.uk/tools/#ISBNCheckDigitCalculator

    It’s only been tested with a few ISBNs, so feedback would be appreciated.

    It appears that to convert from 10 to 13 digit ISBN, take the first 9 digits of the ISBN-10, prefix with 978, then calculate a new check digit. So, with my spreadsheet, it should be quick and easy to convert 100 ISBN-10s to ISBN-13s

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 12, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Fantastic, thanks Russell, I knew there was a better solution out there somewhere.

    Reply

    Adan Lerma January 12, 2012 at 4:57 am

    joel, can the isbn’s that google assigns, be used at other outlets for the same digital edition? thanks!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 12, 2012 at 11:03 am

    Adan, I was unaware that Google assigned ISBNs. How did you receive one from them?

    Reply

    Charity Luthy November 12, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Thank you very much for posting this. I had registered a block of 10 ISBNs three years ago and lost the email containing login information, etc. This allowed me to reconstruct my remaining ISBN numbers, for which I am very grateful.

    Thanks again!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander November 12, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Great to hear that worked out for you Charity.

    Reply

    Clark Bunch June 20, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    I had never put any thought into what an ISBN meant, just that each book had a unique number. Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN’s) are designed to tell you all sorts of information about the vehicle they’re subscribed to so it makes sense that ISBN’s convey useful information as well. Only after seeing my book listed on Amazon did I realize there were 10 and 13 digit numbers.

    Reply

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