v.22 #2 From the University Presses – Why I Hate the BISAC Codes

by | May 20, 2010 | 0 comments

Column Editor: Sanford G. Thatcher (Director, Penn State Press, USB 1, Suite C, 820 N. University Drive, University Park, PA 16802-1003; Phone: 814-865-1327; Fax: 814-863-1408)  www.psupress.org


In my column for the December 2009 issue about “Google 2.0: Still a Mixed Blessing,” I referred at the end to the criticism that has already been made of Google’s decision to use the BISAC codes for identifying books by subject category by, among others, Geoffrey Nunberg, who said: “The BISAC scheme is well-suited for a chain bookstore or a small public library, where consumers or patrons browse for books on the shelves. But it’s of little use when you’re flying blind in a library with several million titles, including scholarly works, foreign works, and vast quantities of books from earlier periods.” And I concluded: “Google’s decision to employ BISAC codes is yet one more glaring revelation of how skewed the Settlement is toward the interests of trade-book authors and commercial trade-book publishers rather than academic authors and academic presses.”

I want in this article to expand on that critique and demonstrate more fully why the BISAC codes so ill-serve the academic community and the scholarly publishers that support it. At a very general level, it must be said that, just as the interests of the STM journal publishers mainly determine what positions the AAP takes on issues in journal publishing, so too the commercial trade publishers so dominate the AAP’s board that their interests come first whenever new policies are adopted. Scholarly book publishers (not including here college textbook publishers, which form a subindustry of their own) constitute a very small minority of AAP members and have little chance to exert much influence over decisions made, such as the choice of what metadata to use. Although the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) is an independent nonprofit agency that presumes to serve all sectors of the book industry, and that was created in 1975 by a number of trade associations besides the AAP (such as the Book Manufacturers Institute and the American Booksellers Association), it is very much a stepchild of the AAP, and those who serve on its various committees reflect that influence.

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