A government information librarian and the Coordinator for Special Collections at California State University, San Bernadino, Jill Vassilakos-Long is the coauthor, with her colleague Michael Burgess, of the bibliography of historical crime fiction Murder in Retrospect. She debuts as a fiction writer (writing as Jill Vassilakos) in our current issue, July/August 2022, with the historical mystery story “The Message of Amun-Re.” In this post, she provides some helpful tools for readers searching for good books in our genre. —Janet Hutchings
I have to admit that my To Be Read list is already too long to get through in this lifetime. But there’s no law against looking, right?
I’ve been a librarian for a long time. How do my traditional tools stack up against newer websites and apps, when I’m looking for a good read? I asked around, to see what other readers are using today.
This is a rundown of what I found:
- Amazon: other customers were interested in . . . stayed pretty much in series.
- GoodReads: Historical mystery list was all right, I do like the book synopses.
- Reddit: r/mysterybook, r/booksuggestions, and r/suggestmeabook, if you type historical mysteries in the blank next to the subreddit title in the blank at the top of the list, it brings up posts that include the phrase “historical mysteries.” The information is dated to the last active conversation on the list, but the conversations were informative.
- What Should I Read Next? (https://www.whatshouldireadnext.com/); I searched Ellis Peters (best known as the author of the Brother Cadfael series). I thought I might get ecclesiastical historical mysteries. I did not. I did get some historical mysteries: Rex Stout, Ngaio Marsh, Lindsey Davis, Ruth Downie, etc., but also many non-mysteries. Nothing set in medieval England. I’m baffled. I could not figure out the site logic well enough to use it intelligently.
- Literature-Map (https://www.literature-map.com/) was a little better. (Peter Tremayne was near Ellis Peters, which I thought was reasonable.) It did not help me find any new authors, but if someone was new to the genre, it could be useful.
- WhichBook (https://www.whichbook.net/) was fun, but didn’t let me search for mysteries.
- WorldCat (https://www.worldcat.org/) let me search, but the first screen of results was mostly reference books about historical mysteries, not historical mystery books.
The thing is, I’m a librarian. I know a tool, the Catalog of the Library of Congress, that I can use to find targeted lists. While it’s a professional tool, anyone can use it. But using it well takes some work. (https://catalog.loc.gov/)
Why I like it:
It is, essentially, created through the work of tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of Catalogers working in libraries. Have you ever seen a Cataloger create a record? It’s not a casual thing. They hold the book in their hands, they page through it, they read the Table of Contents, they look up information on the series… the mindset is “Every book has a reader who needs it. How would that person search for it? How can I make sure they find it?”
They don’t just add a couple subject tags to a title. They use MaRC (Machine Readable Catloging) records. MaRC records have over a thousand fields, every single one of them has its own usage rules. The MaRC field for form/genre is 655. To find books in a genre, that’s the field I need to search.
I think it’s useful enough that anyone who loves books should learn how to use it. I’ll walk you through the search process.
The first hurdle is that the Library of Congress has dumbed down the interface. Libraries all want to be Google, because Google is so successful. But the difference between a broad search that pulls in tons of records and a focused search that pulls in records that precisely meet my needs, is counted in my time. So, I went looking for a better search interface than the single blank that shows up on the main page. It turns out that under search options (to the right of the search blank) you can select Keyword Search, and then set the Keyword Search to “Expert” (just pull down the search menu under “ALL”).
The information you need:
- The tag for the field you want to search: The Library of Congress Catalog Search/Browse Help – Indexes Listed by Index Name: https://catalog.loc.gov/vwebv/ui/en_US/htdocs/help/index_name.html.The tag for the 655 field: genre headings, is KSFG.
- The terms that can be used in that field: https://www.loc.gov/aba/publications/FreeLCGFT/GENRE.pdf). “Historical mysteries” is not a genre heading. Both “Historical fiction” and “Detective and Mystery fiction” are on the list.
Begin with experimentation, to try out the search syntax.
In Keyword Search, with the search type set to “expert”: I typed
- KSFG “mystery and detective fiction”.
The search found 45 records. That can’t be right. It’s too few. One of the world’s best search skills is recognizing anomalous results. These tell you that there is a problem with the search. If the results look improbable, first check for typos in the search.
No, the search was typo-free; but something was clearly off. I looked at the subject heading again and saw that I got it backwards, it’s not “mystery and detective fiction” it’s “detective and mystery fiction.” When you’re asking a machine it doesn’t understand the question, it just performs a character matching search. So, the order matters.
- KSFG “detective and mystery fiction” found 3,789 records. Still unbelievably low.
The next strategy for a failing search is to simplify the search.
- KSFG “mystery fiction.”
The results hit the retrieval limit of 10,000, which was in line with my expectations. I checked a few of the records, and “mystery fiction” and “detective and mystery fiction” were both found in the Form/Genre heading. I’m not sure why. The policy to add form/genre headings is pretty new. One of the reasons that cataloging is not a rapidly-changing field is that going back and updating millions of records to bring them to current standards is pretty much impossible, or at the very least, unlikely to be funded, which amounts to the same thing. This means that records get updated piecemeal, as catalogers come across them and are moved to update them. In some systems, there is an attempt to automate some updating of older records. If “mystery fiction” is a term that was used in older records, maybe in a different MaRC field, it is possible that some sys admins automated moving that term to the new field. An examination of the records found shows that both terms are used, and that the “mystery fiction” search finds both, so it’s a good choice.
This is where things get fun. Students today learn about Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT) when they learn about set theory – in grade school. Boolean operators are how computers search, they create sets by finding results sets for search terms, then they combine those sets depending on the Boolean operator used in the search.
The computer finds the set that matches your first criteria (in this case that the form/genre headings include “mystery fiction”). Then the computer finds the set that matches your second criteria, for instance that the form/genre headings include ‘historical fiction.” The computer looks at your search to figure out what you want done with the two sets, and if you have used the Boolean AND operator, it finds where those sets overlap. In other words, it creates a search result set of records that have BOTH “mystery fiction” AND “historical fiction” in the form/genre field.
It looks like this: KSFG “mystery fiction” AND KSFG “historical fiction”
”AND” finds the overlap in the sets – the records that have BOTH terms.
This search found 2,034 books. I go back to my search screen and add a limit for publication year 2022-2023. That takes the results list down to 6. (If I choose “past year” so that I get those published in 2021, it finds 61. There have certainly been more than 6 historical mysteries published in 2022, but it takes a while for books to get cataloged. Maybe there are 30 on a shelf waiting for cataloging!)
There are other searches I try as well. I can combine the genre search with a general subject search (the field tag is KSUB). Some examples are:
KSFG “mystery fiction” AND KSFG “historical fiction” AND KSUB England
or I could search KSFG “mystery fiction” AND KSFG “historical fiction” AND (KSUB “monks” OR KSUB “nuns”)
“OR” finds all the records that have EITHER of the search terms. If you are creating a complex search that has other elements besides those joined with OR, then use parentheses around the terms joined with “OR” to force the system to combine them into one set.
KSFG “mystery fiction” AND KSFG “historical fiction” AND (KSUB “monks” OR KSUB “nuns”) found 48, and a lot of them are new to me!
The third Boolean operator is “NOT.” You use NOT in your search when you are getting a lot of noise in the results and you need the computer to winnow the list. These were actually pretty clean searches, but, to provide an example so that you have the syntax in case you need it:
KSFG “mystery fiction” AND (KSFG “science fiction” OR KSFG “fantasy fiction”) NOT KSUB “vampires”
So, a little playing around in the Catalog of the Library of Congress gave me targeted prospect list. I will probably check out some of the titles on GoodReads or look for reviews and decide what to add to my TBR list.
I hope you all find wonderful books and the time to read them.