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ISTC and Ur-Texts

Tuesday, I attended a meeting on the International Standard Text Code (ISTC), organized by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) in Manhattan.  The meeting was held in conjunction with the release of a white paper on the ISTC by Michael Holdsworth entitled ISTC: A Work in Progress. This is a terrific paper and worthy of reading for those interested in this topic and I commend it to you all, if you haven’t seen it.  The paper provides a detailed introduction to the ISTC and what role this new identifier will play in our community.

During the meeting as I was tweeting about the standard, I got into a brief twitter discussion with John Mark Ockerbloom at the University of Pennsylvania Library.  Unfortunately as wonderful as Twitter is for instantaneous conversation, it is not at all easy to communicate nuance.    For that, a longer form is necessary, hence this blog post.

As a jumping off point, let us start with the fact that the ISTC has a fairly good definition about what it is identifying: the text of a work as a distinct abstract item that may be the same or different across different products or manifestations.  Distinguishing between those changes can be critical, as is tying together the various manifestations for collection development, rights and product management reasons.

One of the key principles of the ISTC is that:

“If two entities share identical ISTC metadata, they shall be treated as the same textual work and shall have the same ISTC.”

Where to draw this distinction is quite an interesting point.  As John pointed out in his question to me, “How are works with no definitive original text handled? (e.g. Hamlet) Is there an #ISTC for some hypothetical ur-Hamlet?”  The issue here is that there are multiple “original versions” of the text of Hamlet. Quoting from Wikikpedia: “Three different early versions of [Hamlet] have survived: these are known as the First Quarto (Q1), the Second Quarto (Q2) and the First Folio (F1). Each has lines, and even scenes, that are missing from the others.”

In this case, the three different versions would each have three different ISTCs assigned to them, since the text of the versions is different.  They could be noted as related to the other ISTCs (as well as the cascade of other related editions) in the descriptive metadata fields.  Hamlet is a perfect example of where the ISTC could be of critical value, since those who have an interest in the variances between the three different versions would want to know which text is the basis of the copy of Hamlet they are purchasing, since there are significant differences between the three copies.

Perhaps most stringent solution in keeping with the letter of the standard might be that the First Quatro, have been the first known to published, since it was the first to appear in the Stationers’ Register in 1602 although it likely was not published until summer or fall 1603.  The Second Quarto and First Folio were published later—in 1604 and 1623 respectively.  Although the first Quatro is often considered “inferior” to later versions, assigning it the “Source” ISTC would be no different than if it were published today, and subsequently re-published as a revision (which would be assigned a related ISTC).  While there has been controversy about the source text of Hamlet that probably began not long after the day it was published and has certainly grown as the field of scholarship around Shakespeare has grown, for the purposes of identification and linking does the “Ur-text” matter?

Certainly, a user would want to know that this is the canonical version, be that the Second Quatro or First Folio versions.  The critical point is that we identify things differently when there are important reasons to make the distinctions.  In the case of Hamlet, there is a need to make the distinction.  Which copy is considered “original” and which is a derivative isn’t nearly as important as making the distinction.

It is valuable to note the description in the ISTC User’s Manuel in the section on Original works and derivations.  Quoting from the Manuel:

7.1    What is an “original” work?

For the purposes of registration on the ISTC database, a work may be regarded as being “original” if it cannot be adequately described using one or more of the controlled values allowed for the “Derivation Type” element (specified elsewhere in this document).

A work is considered to be “original” for registration purposes unless it replicates a significant proportion of a previously existing work or it is a direct translation of the previously existing one (where all the words may be different but the concepts and their sequence are the same). It should be noted that this is a different approach from that used by FRBR2, which regards translations as simply different “expressions” of the same work.

The “Source ISTC” metadata field is an optional one and is “Used to identify the original work(s) from which this one is derived (where appropriate). It is recommended that these are provided whenever possible.”  In the case of the three Hamlet “original versions” this field would likely be left blank, since there is no way to distinguish between the “Original” and the “Derivation”.  Each of the three versions could be considered “Original”, but this would get messy if one were not noted as original.   There is a “Derivation type” metadata field with restricted values, although “Unspecified” is one option.  Since there isn’t necessarily a value in the “original” distinction, there isn’t a point arguing about which is original.  In the real world, what will likely be the “original” will be the first version that receives the assignment.

This same problem will likely be true of a variety of other texts, especially from distant historical periods.   A focus on core principles, that we distinguish what is important, that disambiguation is important, and avoiding the philosophical arguments surrounding “original” versus “derivative”, just as the ISTC community is trying to avoid “ownership” of the record, will help to serve the entire community.

There is a lot more information about the ISTC provided by NISO. Members and subscribers can read the article that Andy Weissberg VP of Identifier Services & Corporate Marketing at Bowker wrote in Information Standards Quarterly last summer, The International Standard Text Code (ISTC): An Overview and Status Report. For non-subscribers, Andy Weissberg also presented during the 2009 NISO-BISG Changing Standards Landscape forum prior to ALA’s Annual conference in Chicago.  You can view his presentation slides or watch the video from that meeting.

The International ISTC Agency Ltd is a not-for-profit company, limited by guarantee and registered in England and Wales. Its sole purpose is to implement and promote the ISO 21047 (ISTC) standard and it is operated by representatives of its founding members, namely RR Bowker, CISAC, IFRRO, and Nielsen Book Services.

The first edition of “ISO 21047 Information and Documentation – International Standard Text Code (ISTC)” was published by ISO in March 2009. It is available for purchase in separate English and French versions either as an electronic download or printed document from ISO.

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