The International Standard Text Code

A couple of weeks ago I spotted an article about the ISTC, a new publishing standard. What was particularly interesting was that it seems to have potential for much wider application: Ted Nelson’s ‘transclusion’ came to mind and there would seem to be the potential for using an ISTC to identify and make micro-payments for texts that you might want to transclude; it could even be useful for realising aspects of the Semantic Web. However, this is big picture thinking so in order to understand the basics we asked Richard Gartner to explain it to us.

Introduction to the ISTC
by Richard Gartner

A new standard has recently been approved by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) to enable texts to be uniquely identified. The International Standard Text Code (ISTC) is a sixteen-digit number which applies to a text itself rather than the forms in which is it published or disseminated. It takes the form of a sixteen-digit hexadecimal number looking like this:


whose parts (separated here by hyphens) represent the registration agency, year, a code for the text itself and a check digit (a single digit calculated from the others in the number to allow the detection of any errors in typing) respectively.

The ISTC is designed to perform a similar function to the well-established ISBN (International Standard Book Number), but will apply at the level of a text itself, a higher level of description than that of the publication (which the ISBN is designed to identify): it would, for instance, be assigned to the text of a work such as Bleak House itself rather than its different published editions. Where a text may have multiple ISBNs, for example where it is published in multiple editions, or in both hardback and paperback, it will only have a single ISTC to identify its textual content and allow these different editions to be linked together.

The ISTC is designed to operate within the FRBR (Fundamental Requirements for Bibliographic Records) framework. FRBR is a model for bibliographic information which sets out a number of levels for bibliographic description from the most abstract (known as the work) down to an individual physical item. The ISTC is designed to identify what FRBR terms the expression of a work, the specific form that it takes when it is realized in some way, such as a given edition of a text, or a version in a given language. It therefore operates on a level one higher than ISBNs, which identify the physical forms that a work takes when it is published or otherwise made concrete in some way (called the manifestation in the FRBR scheme).

Within the education sector, the ISTC will clearly have an important role within libraries, and also in repositories or any other area where textual objects need to be unambiguously identified. Its prime function will be to allow the identification of an item as a textual intellectual entity more precisely than is possible at present. For the library user, it will allow for more precise bibliographic searches, by, for example, distinguishing texts with similar titles from each other. It would also allow the greater recall of relevant texts by allowing users to find the same one published under different titles: the manifold titles under which Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels appear, for instance, could be linked together neatly by an ISTC, allowing the user to trace all other editions of the text from a single record containing this number.

It certainly seems that the ISTC will become a key part of a bibliographic record, particularly once the new RDA (Resource Description and Access) cataloguing rules standard, which is based on FRBR, is fully adopted.

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