ISNI: An Authority for Authors?

I’m 0000 0000 6755 1414.

I’ve been assigned this number by ISNI, the International Standard Name Identifier. I could insert a quote from the old television show The Prisoner here, but in this case I’m ambivalent about being a number (although I also would prefer to stay a free man.)

One of my causes is the creation of a system that would make it easy for authors to be identified and found, partially so that the publication of new editions or derivative licenses could be negotiated, but increasingly to protect these works from being declared as “orphans” and being appropriated if their authors or other rightsholders can’t be located. To me, it seems like the problem of works which are still under copyright, but whose authors cannot be found, is to make it easier to find them.

There were already a number of library-related systems for identifying authors and disambiguating authorship in existence. They are generally referred to as authorities (not what it sounds like; the name is derived from “author,”) but none of them are exactly authoritative. In fact, the authorities are a bewildering tangle of cross-references, assumptions, and links to places like Wikipedia, from which much of their information seems to derive. You have to be a librarian to appreciate them, I suppose.

They tend to be created, maintained, and updated by the library trade, and one can see how they’d be useful to it. One would think that they’d be the ideal system mentioned above. Want to find an author? Just use an authority! There are two problems, though. The entities most likely to be able to identify an author and disambiguate which works were written by him or her and not someone else with the same name is – surprise – the author him or herself. Yet virtually none of these authorities include authors directly in the process of compiling their data.

The other problem is that none of them provide data on how to contact authors, and, in fact, consider that information contrary to their purpose. ISNI’s FAQ states that “It is not intended to provide direct access to comprehensive information about [a] Public Identities, but can provide links to external sources where such information is held.”

So why am I focusing on ISNI as opposed to say, Library of Congress Authorities or Worldcat? ISNI seems to be focused more on identifying people rather than their works, and is designed to consolidate data from those other systems.

I was already in their database, and was pleased to find out that it was comparatively easy to modify my entry when I discovered a few mistakes. It was not instantaneous, however, and the actual updating was done by the “ISNI Quality Team.” Most importantly, although I wasn’t able to attach my email address to the listing, they did include the URL of my website, which is the next best thing to find me. Here’s my listing.

Unfortunately, at this point, there are still many gaps: missing authors and missing books. For some reason, Victoria’s main entry at ISNI only lists the Czech edition of The Burning Land, despite the fact that the sources it links to list many more. My entry was missing only one book, but I noted at least one author who has the same name as me, and has had a number of books published through Authorhouse, was not there at all. Clearly, there is a need for authors to create or clean up their own entries.

I am encouraged that ISNI’s system has much potential. There are questions remaining to be answered, however. The most problematic is who actually qualifies as an author under this system. ISNI claims to already have over seven million entries, most of them taken from other authority databases–but there’s only one way to find out if you’re there or not, and that’s to use ISNI’s search function.

If you’re not there, the whole process becomes more difficult. You must register through Bowker, the for-profit company that manages ISBN’s, among other things. But will they allow any author to create or modify their own ISNI, or will there have to be some proof of authorship, such as a book or article already somewhere in the system? Will you need an ISBN to have your book placed on your page? Edward Hasbrouck of the National Writers Union, who is an author advocate par excellence, has many problems with ISNI, which he has detailed in an open letter. He feels that ISNI has an obligation to involve authors proactively in the creation of their entries–but I won’t try to summarize. Read Edward’s post for yourself.

The next step, I believe, is for ISNI to engage directly with author groups and communities to solicit authors to come and correct errors and provide additional information, including websites and contact information. Only time will tell if ISNI can live up to its potential and become a useful author information and location tool.

Note: This is the first of an occasional series of posts about author information databases. 


  1. There's really no effective solution to being found by potential users of our works that doesn't include self-registration. No matter how hard we lean on other organizations to register our works correctly and comprehensively, they're not going to do it well enough. We have to do it ourselves.

    For that reason, I'm leaning more and more in the direction of restoring the old system of requiring registration to be copyrighted. A possible substitute is selling our works through agencies like Fox, BMI, etc., but a lot of works probably aren't profitable enough to be listed.

  2. I turned out to have had a number assigned to me, though the information on my books is less complete that it is on R. R. Bowker with whom all my books are registered and where all that information is recorded. I submitted corrections. I also saw no mention of my magazine articles and I listed them for the site, which really should list such articles but I don't know if they will. I don't know if this site will ever be really useful, but IMO if your copyright is violated or your work declared "orphaned," the more ways you can prove the violator did not perform a diligent search, the better.

    One interesting thing is that both my parents' names are listed as "connected." My parents were academic and research professionals who wrote some scholarly and/or technical articles over the years, but their works have no connection to my works.

  3. Anonymous, I believe the goal is to have one ISNI for each author, even if he or she writes under a number of names. I think it would make sense to find each ISNI for each pseudonym, if there is one, and notify them that they are all the same person.

    Dennis, have any of your books had their copyright registered?

  4. Anonymous–My suggestion (and Michael may have a different one) would be to add the pen name to the "Name" category, using the contribution form.

    To test this theory, I searched on Stephen King, with amusing results.

  5. Dennis–if you're not on there, I'd suggest you contact ISNI and ask to be added. Their email is Let them know you have ISBNs and ask to be added. (And if you do, please return to let us know what happens.)

  6. That's interesting. I have a question. Is there any attempt to consolidate authors who write under several names into, er, one person?

  7. I'm not on there, and I've had books out for years under different formats at different times. I've been pirated, had stuff stolen, I'm in many libraries, the copyright office, and the proper ISBN, etc. Guess I'm just not one of the 7 million. Seven million is a vast number for listed writers, who until the digital age probably numbered maybe 200,000 at the most and only a handful making money at it, probably only a few thousand.

  8. Sue, they were quite responsive about adding books when I contacted them.

    Lee, that's what I was thinking. At the very least the ISNI would help disambiguate authors with the same name.

  9. Such a registry would be invaluable if complete and inclusive. Beyond the life of an author, it would enable those interested in using a work to find a later rights-holder or attorney or agent. The ISNI would become part of the front or back matter of the book. And think what it could do if linked to barcodes and Amazon Payments: used book stores could drop a dime to the author whenever a book gets resold.

  10. I'd modify that "living writers" to "active writers," meaning those who're likely to maintain a website. But someone who retired from writing before 1994 may not be online and there were quite a few books published from 1923, when copyright still holds, and 1994, when the Internet first began to matter for authors.

    –Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien

  11. My opinion: it's not that hard to find living writers. And any organization that purports to collect author data to prevent "orphaning" must a) have the cooperation of every major organization of writers so that writers approached for "be in our list" know it's not a scam, and b) proactively seek information from authors, not just from other sources.

    You can't be an authority if you don't include author input.

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