Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Where is WorldCat when you need it?

On a recent Sunday night rerun of the TV show Criminal Minds (episode "The Fisher King: Part 2" Original Air Date: 20 September 2006 ) the Behavior Analysis Unit (BAU) was presented with a code. Dr. Spencer Reid recognized it as a book code. A book code uses a book as a key. The plain text message has a location in the book for the word. In the show the plain text had three numbers representing the page, line and word within the line. The sender and receiver both need the same edition of the same book.

Dr. Reid figured out that the book was The Collector / by John Fowles (fn1) published in London in 1963. The title of the book was derived from other clues given by the suspect. This is a well known book with more than 100 editions and translations. It was a television moment. That means ordinary people would not connect a 1963 baseball card and a shadow box containing a butterfly to the title or a book and its date of publication. To decode the message he needed to find the book. The book has a plot similar to the TV episode (a woman is held captive in a cellar by psychopathic suspect).

The BAU’s data analyst, Penelope Garcia, was asked to find the book. She specializes in accessing secure databases and creating quires that compare two or more databases. According to her biography, she is self taught and never went to college. She is able to enter secure databases that she does not have official credentials faster than I can enter a database that I have full permission to use. Her computers give her results faster than my computers can respond to the enter key. I guess that is just because the show operates in television time. The book query had her flustered. She said that she didn’t know what database to check. She was stuck. Eventually Dr. Reid reported that he was checking some libraries. He never said they he needed a librarian for help.

WorldCat ( is the database to check for this book. It is a publically accessible database that does not require a fee. However, an ordinary end user search would not find the correct edition. WorldCat has an advanced search that allows one to use multiple search parameters. I entered the title “collector,” author “fowles” and the date “1963.” Worldcat gave me three hits; all were for the 1963 Little, Brown edition published in Boston. I wondered if the show’s writers were creating a fictional London edition.

I went to search the catalogue (fn2)of the British Library ( Using the advanced search option and I found the 1963 London edition published by Jonathan Cape. The TV show did not say which British city was the city of publication, but the London edition was the only one from Great Britain. This proved that the book exists. Dr. Reid would need to find the book in a library nearby. WorldCat not only gives the bibliographic information but also the names of the libraries that own it. The list is ordered by the closest library.

I returned to WorldCat and refined the search to include London, 1963. This search gave me the London 1963, edition. The list of libraries included many within 10 miles. However, after searching their catalogs I found only the Little, Brown 1963 edition. I thought WorldCat had a glitch in their search algorithm.

WorldCat did not match the exact edition. They could be figuring that as a Chicago resident I would want the American edition. Scholars sometimes need exact editions as do TV crime fighters. Since the American and British editions did not have the same number of pages there is no way Dr. Reid could use the American edition to solve his coded message.

My error was that I missed selecting the option to search for this edition only. Once I selected that option I found the book in the University of Chicago Library. Its copy has a note on the cover "Uncorrected proof" The library of the University of Michigan and Indiana University also have copies without the note.

The reason American libraries generally only have American editions is because the British editions would not be sold in this country. London editions would only come from gifts, bequests or purchases of used books. The law covering the importation of English language books is under Title 17 Copyright Chapter 6. Prior to 1986 books offered for sale were required to be manufactured in the U.S. or Canada (exceptions are noted in the law.) The TV episode did not say anything about a British connection to the suspect. I assume they were just trying to make puzzle harder to solve for the audience. Dr. Reid found a library with the book and talked to someone by phone who had the book in hand.

This search information and knowledge of the book trade would be common knowledge to a librarian, but I did not hear the word, “librarian” mentioned in the episode. An ordinary searcher would have missing the London edition because it was not found with the first search. Too many patrons want instant answers and don't take the time for a through search. It is really no small wonder that the self taught, Penelope Garcia, did not even think of calling a librarian for help.

On June 24, 2011 the New York Times had an article “In Lean Times, Schools Squeeze Out Librarians” by Fernanda Santos ( about the vanishing school librarian. Budget cutting is eliminating school librarians. In New York there is a law requiring schools to have a certified librarian (

    §91.2 Employment of school library media specialist Each school district shall employ a certified school library media specialist, unless equivalent service is provided by an alternative arrangement approved by the commissioner, in accordance with the following standards:

The article pictures a school library in shared by Public School 9 and Middle School 571 in Brooklyn that was recently renovated, but has no librarian. Apparently the schools don’t care about breaking the law.

Is it any wonder that a non-college educated TV character does not know to ask a librarian? What happens in the real world? I hope the next time Garcia has trouble finding a book, she turns to the expert librarians.

1. John Fowles (1926 - 2005 ) was born and educated in Great Britain.
2. British spelling is used on purpose.

Steven Arakawa of Yale University Library wrote in an email, " The Yale University library has generally purchased modern British authors from British publishers." Research libraries frequently have deals with foreign publishers or agents to acquire books. Some major universities do a better job of acquiring foreign imprints than Library of Congress. I did not mean to imply that British imprints are in any way illegal to import. The copyright law and treaties make provisions for foreign imprints. Some of the limitations on British fiction go back to the time when no copyright treaty existed between the U.S. and Great Britain. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were very unhappy that publishers in the other country were selling their books without paying royalties. Some of these issues I discussed in my blog entries on copyright.

The point in the TV episode was the coder and the decoder needed the exact same edition to get the message.

I have never done a line by line analysis of the differences between an American and a British edition. I assume that the American editions have American spellings and the British have British spellings and sometimes concepts, idioms, or terminology may be localized. Sometimes the title of the book is different in other countries. For example the first Harry Potter book was called Harry Potter and the philosopher's stone in the British edition and Harry Potter and the sorcerer's stone in the American edition. Since the Chicago Public Library has both editions, some significant differences must exist.

Arakawa assumes that Yale wants the British editions of British authors because it is closer to the author's intentions.


Daniel Stuhlman said...

Received via e-mail from Esther Mandel:

And here I thought Garcia knew everything!

Alice said...

Glad WorldCat could be of assistance! Built by librarians the world over, WorldCat is the world's library catalog. Of course, the crime solvers in the show now wouldn't even need to call--they could just use their mobile phone to pull up results.