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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Barcodes and Books

Barcodes and Books

How a book is identified depends somewhat on when and how it was published. Many books have no identifying numbers. There are two common barcoding systems used on books. The four most common numbers are the EAN (European Article Number AKA International Article Number), the ISBN (International Standard Book Number and earlier the Standard Book Number), the UPC (Universal Product Code) and the Library of Congress Catalog Number. Of these numbers, only the EAN and UPC can appear as barcodes.


Newer books should have an EAN. There are two forms in common usage: the EAN (which is 13 digits long) and the EAN + 5 (18 digits). In the latter case, the last 5 digits code the currency and price. The EAN is often on the inside of the front cover of a book.

The first section of any EAN barcode is the EAN. The first three numbers are the country code. If the first three numbers are 978 or 979, this tells us this item is from "Bookland," which is the imaginary country that all Books come from. The next nine numbers are the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and a checksum. The second section of the barcode tells us the price. The first number is the currency, the other four are the price.


ISBN identification (International Standard Book Number) was implemented in 1970. [The earlier Standard Book Number was used from 1966 to 1974]

ISBNs have either 10 or 13 digits. This is an example of an ISBN: ISBN 0-812-50394-5

A 10-digit ISBN can be converted to an EAN by adding the "Bookland" prefix 978 and changing the last digit to the new checksum. (No old ISBN translates to a 979 Bookland code. Also, a 979 EAN is the ISBN. And there is no ten digit version. Only the 13-digit EAN/ISBN will appear as a barcode, never the 10-digit code.

On some books, the ISBN will be coded with a two-height barcode, similar to the US Postal code.

Price Point UPC

North American books also use the UPC (Universal Product Code) system. Most often (always for older paperbacks) if there is a barcode, it will be the Price Point UPC. The first section is the UCC (Company Code), the last section is an item number. Unfortunately, the price is smack in the middle! Which means, when the price changes, the UPC changes. In technical terms this system is "really stupid!" As of 1 January 2007 its use was discontinued, but there are many books out there with this type of barcode.

You can recognize a Price Point UPC by that price-in-the-middle feature. Also, the small 5-digit add-on contains part of the ISBN. If you see a Price Point UPC on the back of the book, check to see if it has an EAN as well. (The EAN is often on the inside of the front cover of a paperback book) The EAN is much easier to work with.

About the barcodes themselves

The EAN and UPC use the same barcode font. Each character is expressed in four bars. The bars can have one of four widths and both the dark and light bars count. There are barcodes where the white space doesn't carry information, in this case it they matter. If you assign the numbers 0-3 to each bar width, you'll find out that each character's bars will total 7. This is part of the error checking.

Both EAN and UPC codes contain additional error checking in the form of a check digit. This is the 12th character in a UPC and the 13th in an EAN.

Other Codes

Large retailers find it useful to create their own inventory-tracking systems, using barcodes that relate to numbers in their central computer's data-base but not necessarily to the world outside. They can print up stickers with a barcode font that their computer understands, but no one else can. Some of these barcodes look like EAN or UPC because they use the same font UUC128, some use completely different fonts and coding.

Book that don't have a barcode, how to add one

Look on the back of the title page for the ISBN. ISBN identification (International Standard Book Number) was implemented in 1970. A 10-digit ISBN can be converted to an EAN by adding the "Bookland" prefix 978 and changing the last digit to the new checksum. does this for you. You can convert the ISBN to an EAN barcode and print it out. If you want to understand more, go to

Library of Congress Catalog Number

Older books may just have a LCCN. This doesn't translate to a UPC, EAN or ISBN and although the Library of Congress has an online database, it often only contains the number for a book's first edition. The LCCN is never barcoded.

David Schlinkert

The Groqit is the world's smallest portable inventory computer with a built-in barcode reader. It is designed to assist people in keeping track of large collections of books, DVDs, etc. And help them avoid buying duplicate items.

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