Compatibility of Weblogs and ISSN

This document is written for ISSN registrars. It will explain the compatibility of Weblogs and ISSN registration.

The issue

People who publish and maintain Weblogs have applied for ISSNs. Some registrars have immediately registered the Weblogs; others have categorically refused to register Weblogs at all; and still others have reluctantly or selectively registered them.

The evidence, however, indicates there are no justifiable reasons not to register Weblogs for ISSN providing they meet the regular criteria.

What is a Weblog?

A Weblog is defined by Blood (2002) as “a format: a Web page with new entries placed at the top, updated frequently.”

In practice, we find two broad categories:

The original Weblog format. The author uses the basic function of the Web, the hyperlink, to annotate another page with his or her original writing
Also known as journals. More autobiographical in form; memoirs

Many Weblogs combine the two forms. Note that it is exceedingly difficult to find Weblogs that merely link and do not also comment. The vast preponderance of Weblogs are set up specifically to give voice to open-ended quantities of original content, usually writing.

Definition of serial

We need to recap the definition of a serial:

A publication, in any medium, issued in successive parts, usually having numerical or chronological designations and intended to be continued with no predetermined end. Note: This definition excludes works intended to be published in a finite number of parts.... The ISSN is applicable to the entire population of serials, whether past, present or to be published in the foreseeable future. Serials include periodicals, newspapers, annuals (reports, yearbooks, directories, etc.), the journals, series, memoirs, proceedings, transactions, etc. of societies.

How Weblogs meet the definition

  1. Weblogs are publications in a certain medium (electronic).
  2. Nearly all Weblogs have numeric or chronological designations. Weblogging software may automatically provide a serial number for each posting (as Blogger and Movable Type do), or the author may custom-define a datestamp for each posting, or the author may provide a datestamp and a serial number. The URLs of many Weblogs themselves contain datestamps and/or serial numbers; those URLs are themselves sufficient as designations.
  3. Weblogs rarely have a predetermined end. The default intent is to continue publishing indefinitely.
  4. The Weblog format encompasses the past (the form dates back to the late 1990s), present (hundreds of thousands of Weblogs are published today), and the future (nearly all of them will continue to be published, and new Weblogs will be created).
  5. Weblog contents can often be characterized as directories (as of links), series, and/or memoirs, among many other forms.

Registrar objections to Weblogs

I have become aware of the objections of registrars to the allocation of ISSN for Weblogs. Let us consider typical objections below.

Weblogs are not serious.

The statement cannot be categorically made. Many print publications are not “serious”; every modern nation has its satirical or humour publications, most of which have ISSNs. Moreover, seriousness is not listed as a criterion in determining the nature of a serial. Imposing a value judgement of that sort would amount to a dangerous precedent; it’s a few steps away from censorship, since it permits librarians to treat some serials differently from others merely because the librarians themselves don’t like the content.

Weblogs are too numerous to register.

In principle, that is true, because many hundreds of thousands of Weblogs are currently published. However, the reality is that only the most serious and dedicated publishers will attempt to register Weblogs. Registrars have no reason to fear that, for example, all 500,000 users of the LiveJournal system or all 800,000 Blogger users will simultaneously decide to register. Only a fraction will make the attempt.

In any event, rejecting registration for Weblogs because there are too many of them is undemocratic. For the first time in history, A.J. Liebling’s maxim that freedom of the press belongs to whoever owns one has actually come true. In the past, only corporations and institutions could afford to publish. Now it is possible for individuals and groups to publish. Their intentions and the form of their work are comparable to established publishers’; the difference is they now have access to a medium they can afford.

If ISSN registrars choose to deny registration to Weblog authors merely because too many are attempting to register, authors will view that decision as indistinguishable from the belief that it was OK to register “real” publications before the Web came along, but the little people aren’t what ISSN registrars had in mind.

On the practical issue of how to manage an increase in applications, I am aware of no published calls for ISSN registrars to process an application in any specific period of time. Weblog authors are aware that registrars use a bureaucratic process and are perfectly willing to wait their turn. However, that must not be interpreted as a license to process Weblog applications after all the “real” publications have been handled. Weblogs are real publications.

Our library doesn’t collect that resource.

The concept is a misnomer and irrelevant in Web publishing. It is possible to collect Web publications, through several methods:

  1. Automatic regular archiving by the library (daily, for example)
  2. Subscription to RSS feeds (a syndication format that provides either full text or citations and abstracts; in practice, the RSS feed isn’t the same as the actual site)
  3. Use of an existing archival service, like
  4. Asking the author to provide a CD-ROM or other permanent format

But Web publications are seldom, if ever, subject to deposit regulations in libraries. The entire concept of “collecting” a serial presupposes formats that existed prior to the Web – that is, physical formats.

Weblog authors are not asking librarians to collect their sites. Collection is not relevant to Weblogs, and its use as a pretext to refuse registration is not justified. Libraries who use collection criteria as a way of limiting ISSN allocations need to rethink their criteria.

Weblogs are similar to catalogues, and we don’t register catalogues.

A weak case could be made for that argument, but only by registrars who do not actually read Weblogs. The original content on Weblogs is as varied as the authors themselves. The criticism here seems to assume that the only Weblogs in existence are those that do nothing but provide lists of links to other sites. Such Weblogs are exceedingly rare; the only one I know of is Robot Wisdom, itself one of the earliest (and least-evolved) Weblogs.

Even in that unrepresentative example, the definition of serial encompasses “directories” and “proceedings.” Due to poor grammar, the intent of the definition is not clear (do the words “the journals, series, memoirs, proceedings, transactions, etc.” really only apply to “societies”?), but the broad definition of serial must prevail. Registrars must be discouraged from fishing for criteria that would disallow Weblogs.

In reality, links-and-commentary Weblogs contain substantial original content. Weblogs are not like a parts catalogue or even a library card catalogue. The selection of material to which to link constitutes an original editorial component. In any event, allocation of ISSN based on content is a slippery slope that I presume registrars will hesitate to follow.

Weblogs are ephemeral.

In extremely rare cases, yes, a Weblog pops up for a limited time and then expires. If the author knows in advance that the lifespan of the Weblog is short, then it is categorically disqualified from ISSN. But serials of all types may be published “irregularly,” and most serials eventually cease publication. Registrars may be misled by how easy it is to check if a site is still up and running. If you drew a comparison between Weblogs and print periodicals, for example, it might take a registrar years to learn that a print publication had shut down completely. Do not be misled by the capacity to instantly verify a Weblog’s period of publication; further, do not assume that a long absence of updates indicates a Weblog that has ceased publication.

If the objection here is related to the fact that Web sites might cease to be available because of technical factors (your host shuts down, your computer hard drive died, you ran out of money to pay for hosting), note that such barriers are actually lower online than in other media. Free hosting is widely available; at the very least, Google may have archives of your postings. Authors are already commonly required to reregister for ISSN if the title or address changes. That is sufficient to guard against the changeable nature of Web publication, which is different from other media only in degree, not kind.

I don’t know who the audience for this publication is.
That is not per se the concern of the registrar. The author and the reading public determine the audience. Registrars allocate ISSNs every day for publications that baffle them or that they would never read themselves (or for periodicals in languages they cannot read). Audience size isn’t a valid criterion; if it were, all but a tiny few Weblogs would ever qualify for ISSN.
Weblogs are a grey area.
Not according to the definition of serial. But registrars are already acquainted with grey areas. Annuals, for example, can qualify for ISSN and ISBN. Those periodicals may also have characteristics of books, but they indisputably have characteristics of serials that qualify them for ISSN. In the same way, Weblogs have a range of characteristics that qualify them for ISSN.

Non-rational considerations

I would like to record some of the fears of Weblog authors in regard to ISSN registrars. I am summarizing some authors’ perceptions in my own words.

They don’t take us seriously.
Librarians seem happy to register magazines published by corporations or anything remotely academic, but as soon as average people come along with their own publications, suddenly the door closes.
Registrars owe it to themselves to uphold librarians’ well-deserved reputation for fighting censorship in all its forms and defending the freedom to read. Publication is now within the means of average people. To recognize that Weblog authors’ publications are publications that meet the established criteria is fully compatible with the spirit of librarians’ storied history of anticensorship and intellectual freedom.
They’re acting inconsistently.
Within a certain country, some Weblog authors have received ISSNs, others not. In some cases, ISSNs were issued and then a decision was made to issue no more ISSNs to Weblogs.
Authors view this inconsistency with suspicion. Are registrars using content or other criteria to decide who receives an ISSN? If registrations are suddenly stopped, did managers decide, apropos of nothing, that Weblogs do not qualify (they do), or were registrars overreacting to an influx of applications?
They’re not following their own rules.
The definition of serial applies to a wide range of periodicals in any medium, yet this new all-electronic form of publication is singled out as unqualified.
Registrars may have been accustomed to electronic serials for which paid subscriptions were sold – controlled electronic distribution, in other words – and thrown off-guard by the Web, which permits anyone to publish. Authors understand that Weblogs have increased the number of ISSN applications, but that’s what happens when someone finally invents a truly free press.
They don’t bother to learn about Weblogs.
Weblogs are by definition a medium native to the Web, and the Web is replete with discussions of Weblog history, form, and developments. But librarians seem to think reading Web sites about Weblogs is beneath them; are they worried that their preconceptions about Weblogs will be disproved?
Registrars seem to have read a Weblog here or there and developed a preconceived notion of what Weblogs are. Yet the true nature of Weblogs can be easily confirmed by simply surfing the Web. In addition, registrars seem to think that Weblogs do not matter because there aren’t any print publications on the topic. But even that is not true; see the publications list below. Registrars are encouraged to use the Web to learn about Weblogs.


Apart from learning about Weblogs by reading the Web, registrars can do their own searches of print periodicals on the topic of Weblogs. A number of books are also available.


  1. Weblogs are categorically eligible for ISSN under the existing guidelines.
  2. There are no rational reasons to disqualify Weblogs from ISSN.
  3. Registrars can expect an increase in applications, but only a fraction of Weblog authors will apply for ISSN.
  4. ISSNs can be issued to Weblog authors in due course.
  5. Content-related classifications or disqualifications of Weblogs are inappropriate and antithetical to principles of librarianship.
  6. Weblogs are a powerful and democratic medium of expression. They merit due and serious acknowledgement from registrars.

Author credentials

Toronto journalist, author, and accessibility consultant Joe Clark has been online since 1991. His more than 390 published articles and his book (Building Accessible Websites) are joined by more than 1,000 Web pages, including numerous Weblogs. He contributed the article “Deconstructing ‘You’ve Got Blog’ ” to the compilation We’ve Got Blog.

He maintains the ISSN for Weblogs information page.

Useful addresses

Joe Clark ¶ joeclark at ¶ 2003.09.22