Blogs and ISSNs: a pathetic non-issue

OCTOBER 19 03

I've noticed a lot of fuss being kicked up on some blogs recently because they have been turned down for an ISSN (International Standard Serial Number). It's so pathetic, this concern for 'legitimacy'. Joe Clark has applied his not inconsiderable talent to the 'campaign' and made a subsite dedicated to the 'issue', a kind of help-and-encouragement centre for ISSN-wannabes. Zeldman has had an ISSN on his website for a long time, he got his back in the days when librarians had time to waste on this kind of thing and hadn't thought through the degree to which they were screwing up the system giving Mr Zeldman his much-cherished precedent-setting ISSN.

So now librarians the world over have caught on to this half-cocked adolescent desire for recognition and are starting to get edgy. They're realising their old-world definition of a serial could suddenly result in millions of pizza-faced kids panting with excitement to get their blogs on board after being told to demand their nappy rights by seasoned professionals of the blog world who think it's some kind of disgrace that librarians are reluctant to be taken away from their proper duties to service this stupid craze. That it's a conspiracy of librarians to deny electronic publications legitimacy. It has even been said by Joe Clark and others, in all seriousness, that having an ISSN for your blog puts you on a par with Stern or Paris Match or The New Yorker. What kind of people are swayed by that sort of crap? Basically, an ISSN puts you on a par with any tinpot rag that comes out more than once before folding and just happens to be on paper.

There's a good reason why many fanzines never got an ISSN even though they were perfectly entitled to have one, they'd thought it through (if it ever occurred to 'em) and realised an ISSN sorta clashes with the circle-A on the cover y'know, and anyway, what was the fucking point? If anything, it took legitimacy away from an underground publication to show yourself in awe of the kind of respectable power-structures of the world you'd decided you weren't really a part of. After all, you do a fanzine because you're dissatisfied with the 'legitimate' glossy magazines published on a profit motive and want to get your own smallscale not-for-profit voice out there.

Doing a fanzine was all about respecting your own power, your own ability to publish, without reference to much larger bodies of standards, which doubtless work well in the world of big mainstream publishers. Not that I have ever in my life ordered a magazine by its ISSN, because if they ain't bloody heard of it down the newsagent you ain't gonna get it, and at the British Library or Warburg Institute an obscure periodical is more easily found by its… wait for it… title. And standard references in peer-reviewed STM journals (scientific technical medical) never include an ISSN.

It's laughable to now realise that some bedsit blog publishing empires have been nursing an obvious inferiority complex for some time over this, because that's all it is, not taking yourself seriously, not some massive archival edifice not taking you seriously, they've got better things to do frankly.

The latest casualty of this dozy addle-brained way to show yourself to be a fucking idiot is Clagnut, which was turned down for the second time by the eminently sensible British Library, thus prompting this rant, since I have come across this sorry tale just one time too many of late. Anyway, it's got me off my fedupness of yesterday and back to having a can of cold lager by my side at 4 in the morning intent on injecting some good old-fashioned scorn into the debate.

When I set up The Herculaneum Press I pondered whether I wanted the books I published to have an ISBN (International Standard Book Number). Some private presses do succumb to the insidious allure of being catalogued by a major library, if only to regard the ISBN as a typographical ornament to play around with in their books, but overall the deal was that we'll give you a number you can put in your book in exchange for a free copy, and a free copy for the other copyright libraries too. So I thought to myself, why should I be providing free copies of hand-printed limited-edition books to the kind of library where it'll be buried in the vaults and no-one will ever read it, I can always leave my own copies to the British Library in my will if I'm all that bothered and have a misty-eyed moment lamenting the loss to eternity on my deathbed. And besides, once they've got it I can't take it out again if I decide it's a bunch of crap, save via theft. And what use is an ISBN to me anyway, given that it didn't make the books any easier to order via a bookshop as the only bookshop my books were in was a little one where I knew the owner. It put it into perspective. I didn't feel an ISBN made me a better person or gave me any credibility that I didn't already have. And that's the difference.

An ISSN for a blog impresses no-one but a naive fool and the idea of having someone requesting your blog at a major archiving library via its ISSN, rather than just tapping in the URL at a computer or searching on Google, is just farcical and a lame-assed excuse to cover a bit of ill-thought-out vanity. But what it does most definitely show is the insecurity of the blog owners themselves who want an ISSN. What do they want it for? Do they really think they are taking part in some great worldwide campaign to enhance the legitimacy of weblogs, trumpeted by Joe Clark and endorsed by Jeffrey Zeldman, or is it just a rankling issue of their own, an infantile need to be taken seriously laid bare for all to see? I think I know the answer to that. So yes, do let me open wide the eyes of any young 'un out there thinking of wasting a librarian's time in the next week: get a grip not an ISSN.

 

[See follow-up post]