Digital doldrums: ISBNs serve little to no purpose in NepalFlip to the back cover of any book and chances are you’ll see a barcode with a string of numbers above it.
Flip to the back cover of any book and chances are you’ll see a barcode with a string of numbers above it. This is the International Standard Book Number or ISBN, a 13 or 10 digit unique numerical value that helps identify published books. Most Nepali novels, non-fiction, academic books and poetry collections come with an ISBN. But for most books published in Nepal, this number seems to serve little purpose.
“A single ISBN was issued to me for two different books,” said publisher Mani Sharma of Sangri-la Books. “I was later provided with a unique one after I complained.”
Unique ISBNs for every book are assigned by the Tribhuvan University’s Central Library, which began issuing ISBNs in 2000, under direction from the International ISBN Agency. Each ISBN identifies the country, publisher and title, making it necessary for each number to be unique.
“We once found 14 books with the same ISBN,” said Kamal Bahadur Kayastha, ISBN issuing officer at the TU Central Library. As the issuing officer, Kayastha himself admitted to a failure to ensure that the books have unique numbers. “We have almost four lakh books now. That makes it difficult to enter data for every book into the system as we lack a proper software and manpower,” he said.
While Kayastha blamed the lack of an ISBN generating software for errors, the problem ran deeper. A cursory search on ISBN directories online generated no results for a number of books published in Nepal, including books from Nepal’s leading publication houses. One of the few books that resulted in a hit was Buddhisagar’s Karnali Blues. All others displayed errors stating that the assigned number was not found.
The purpose of an ISBN is to make it easier to keep bibliographic records internationally. It is the TU Central Library that is responsible for forwarding their list of national ISBNs to the international agency for listing on its directories. But that has not yet been done, said Indra Prasad Adhikari, the head of the Central Library.
“We’ve spoken to the vice-chancellor about sending the ISBNs to the international agency,” said Adhikari.
However, Vice-chancellor Tirtha Khaniya said this was the first time that he was hearing of the issue. “They have never come to me to discuss it. I’m hearing about it from you for the first time,” said Khaniya.
If ISBNs, despite the ‘international’ prefix, are not registered internationally, what is their purpose?
“Certain marks are required to be promoted as a professor and you get additional points for your published books if they have ISBNs,” said Dilli Ram Uprety, the TU registrar. Outside of that, Uprety does not see any use for an ISBN.
This sentiment was echoed by publishers who admitted that they were paying Rs300 to the TU Central Library for each ISBN simply because it was something they thought they should do, said one publisher who wished to remain anonymous.
“It could be useful in the future when we begin to sell internationally,” said Sharma of Sangri-la Books. “But right now, we don’t really see its application.”