Saturday, September 22, 2007

Magical Thinking at Harvard

A Babylonian Demon Bowl (Kelsey Museum)
"Know the secret name of something and you control it," is an extremely ancient idea, stretching as far back as the Sumerians, and running through subsequent Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greco-Roman magic. The secrecy of the name was critical to its power, and to the mystique of those who knew it. One suspects it also helped their hourly rates.

It's modern equivalent is the "unique identifier." Information is available as never before, but its sheer quantity limits discovery. Unique identifiers cut through the clutter. And they can be powerful. Let the wrong person know your Social Security Number and you'll be in a world of hurt as great as a malevolent spirit caught by a name under a Babylonian demon bowl.

In the legal world the equivalent is the West American Digest System, which numbers court cases for lawyers. Although the cases are invariably in the public domain, the numbers that identify them are not. And controlling "the only recognized legal taxonomy" gives its creator, West Publishing, a valuable monopoly.

In the book world, it's the ISBN. Know a book's title and you can find yourself away in a sea of editions. Discover its ISBN and you've got it for sure. Type the ISBN into BookFinder or and you've a panoply of new and used sellers.

Although assigned by private firms, ISBNs will never go the way of the West American Digest System. But their power explains why the Harvard Coop* has taken to ejecting customers who attempt to write down ISBNs. As reported in the Crimson, this is exactly what happened to one Harvard student, Jarret A. Zafra. In another (?) incident, reported by the Herald, the Coop called the police on three more ISBNs-scribblers.** When asked about the policy, Coop administration told the Crimson that it "considers that information the Coop's intellectual property."

The IP claim is hogwash. ISBNs are facts. Under US law facts can't be copyrighted. The Coop is probably within its rights to expel whomever it wants, bhat won't stop people from trying. The three students above were volunteers for a site called, which is compiling a complete list of all books used at Harvard. When a Harvard Student types in an ISBN, CrimsonReading connects them to new and used booksellers. Affiliate revenues go to charity. By calling on volunteers and getting Harvard professors involved, CrimsonReading is getting around the Coop's magical secrecy. Three cheers to them for doing it.

We need more projects like CrimsonReading. Much the same idea was behind my Google Book Search Search bookmarklet, which asked volunteers to collect Google Book Search IDs. In this case, the unique identifier was new and more secret. By giving its scans unique—and effectively secret—numbers, Google is creating a whole new bibliographic identification scheme. And where ISBNs cover only about thirty years of books, Google's IDs are designed to cover every book printed, including millions in the public domain.

Control the name and you control the thing. It's what WestLaw is doing. It's what's what the Coop is trying to do.

Is it what Google is doing? I'm not sure. And I don't see any signs of this happening on its own yet. For example, sellers on used book sites are not using Google Book IDs to nail down editions. But the danger is there.

Secret and proprietary numbering systems pose a serious challenge to the benign potential of the internet. When the secrecy or obscurity are used against this potential, people need to act up—and break the spell.

*Always pronounced "coop," not "coöp." Full disclosure: My parents belong to the Coop, which is a true "cooperative" in organization. This means they share in the annual dividend accord to how much they spend there. So I'm working against them!
**I grew up near Harvard Square, and the Coop was one of my haunts. (It's a general-purpose bookstore as well.) Quite a few of my friends were expelled from the Coop for shoplifting. If CrimsonReading really wants to get the job done, it should enroll the private-school street urchins of Square in the ISBN game.

Labels: , , , ,


Blogger Mom said...

Sad, Coop is weird. ISBN is definitely out there to be useful. We put it on the things we publish (books and magazines) so that People can Find Things, not hide them. My son's school will let him copy down the information if he wanted to. He just does the convenient thing of getting it at the bookstore ($550 for 4 classes of books arrgh).
And the more people try to "hide" things, the more the Bright, Nosy People will try to find them. So it is all for naught. Best to just let people get the information from the beginning.

9/23/2007 12:29 AM  
Blogger Karen Coyle said...

The Internet Archive's Open Library project claims to have an identifier system for books:


But it's not just schemas. A universal catalog will also allow us to have a new, universal book identification scheme -- something akin to ISBNs or ISTNs, but for all books, not just recent ones. We're currently calling this scheme OLN for Open Library Number, but we'll need your help hashing out how it should work.

It looks like it's similar to the file names that the Archive creates when you upload a file. I've been meaning to ask them to post the algorithm -- the identifier would be derivable, but I'm far from sure that independent derivations would always create the same identifier.

9/23/2007 10:52 AM  
Blogger sam said...

Isn't the Coop owned by Barnes & Noble? If it is (this is what I recall from some time back) then it makes this behavior a little less weird I think.

9/24/2007 9:59 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

>Isn't the Coop owned by Barnes & Noble?

No, I think B&N has the contract to run the bookstore. They used to run it themselves. They still run the non-book side—the other building. I suspect it's a long-term contract. I don't know what sort of control is baked into the agreement.

9/27/2007 3:55 PM  
Blogger billposer said...

Not only does the Coop provide dividends to members, most of its board is elected by the membership, and its explicit purpose is to serve the membership, not to make a profit. If you're a member, you should complain and if this policy persists, vote for candidates who take a stand against it. I am a member and that is what I plan to do.

10/06/2007 4:35 AM  
Blogger BrianFH said...

I must be missing something. The ISBN numbering system is hopelessly limited, worse even than the old URL logjam. I pulled a decades old paperback off my shelf at random; the code was something like 0-441-67123-3

Country-publisher-title-checksum. So the max # of titles that publisher can list is 99999, and they were nearing that decades ago. Imagine a country and publisher code of 3 digits each, like 101-101. It would then have 3 digits left to assign to books, for a maximum of 1000 (000-999).

This system must have been designed by a classic committee: with the IQ of the smartest member divided by the total number of legs.

The "new" 2007 EAN-13 system adds 3 digits. But as I read the literature, they amount to prefixing existing ISBNs with 978- . Huh? The info addition is nil.

I MUST be missing something. Nothing could be this stupid.

10/08/2007 11:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The EAN-13 system actually doubled the number of ISBNs, because they also added 979 as a new prefix along with 978 for existing ISBN-10 numbers. It was about bringing the ISBN system into the UPC code world as much as anything.

10/19/2007 10:57 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home