Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"I'd like a short book..."

I love book discussion groups - when I was an undergrad, I was in a couple, one for Sci-Fi stuff and another that was all over the map. Neither of them lasted very long, but I had a lot of fun and read some books I probably wouldn't have otherwise. When I was in grad school, I stopped doing the book discussion group thing for a while, but I had a friend at another university who was in an interesting one - they'd read anything, but only if it was 200 pages or less. Even students with busy schedules could handle a short book like that each month or so. I'm still thinking about starting up a book discussion group of my own, and it's gotten me thinking about groups I've been a part of or have heard about. So, I was wondering, how would I handle it if someone like my friend told me they needed a short book? How would I find a book like that in our catalog? Plus, I've had students come up to the reference book needing to find something, anything (or nearly anything - there seems to always be a broad topical focus), to read and review for a class. Understandably, students don't usually want to tackle something like a 600 page book if there's a 300 page book that would work just as well. So, how would I handle that?

The best answer I can come up with involves combining knowledge about MARC, Sirsi, and wildcards (however, as my mom often tells me, I have a tendency to make things harder on myself than is necessary, so there may be an easier way to do all of this). A while back, I wrote a post about how to search individual MARC fields in records in our catalog. In MARC records, the 300 field has, among other things, pagination information. In our catalog, a ? symbol is used as a substitute for a single missing character (a $ symbol is for multiple characters, by the way - I keep forgetting).

If I wanted a book that was between 200 and 300 pages, a good search might be

[words or phrase search] 2?? {300}

It would be best to do this as an advanced search, probably limited to Type - Books. An advanced search would also make it less confusing to narrow the search down to a particular topic.

With patience and the use of limits and Boolean operators, you could come up with a search that could, for instance, retrieve any fiction in the General Stacks that is less than 200 pages - although your results list would probably still include false positives (see the next paragraph).

There are various limitations to this approach that need to be kept in mind. For instance, an average 300 field for a book might look something like "iv, 367 p. : ill. ; 20 cm." If you're doing a search for double digit pagination, you'll probably end up retrieving some items just on the basis of their measurements. If you're doing a search and don't limit it to Type - Books (or something similar), you may end up with audiobooks or something else you don't want (unless you're looking for audiobooks with a length of a certain number of minutes, but, because of the way lengths of audiobooks and CDs are sometimes recorded, even that can have problems). Another limitation is that, although the pagination may say "600 p.", 150 of those pages may be endnotes and index. Sometimes there's a note in the record that will tell you how many pages of bibliographical information there is, but not always, and even this isn't necessarily an accurate indicator of the "readable" length of the book.

Despite all of that, I have to say I love the ability to search certain specific MARC fields. There are so many potential applications! I'm just not sure I'd remember any of them when at the reference desk, but that's part of the reason why I'm recording them here.


  1. The whole difficulty in being able to search for books of a particular page length in MARC records was the basis behind the project I did in my Organization of Information class in library school. I'd been working with 4th grade struggling readers who needed to read a biography of at least 100 pages. The length of the book (in page ranges - under 100, 100-200, and more than 200) became one of the fields in book records in the databases we had to set up.

  2. Yes - it would be fantastic if the record were set up so that you could easily construct a search for a range of pages, or for pages less than/more than [blank]. However, even if you the online catalog could do that, MARC isn't strict enough - subfield "a" isn't just for numbers. The way things are right now, people would either have to abandon recording pagination as it is (no more roman numerals) or there'd have to be more duplication of information in MARC (another pagination field that only has numbers in it? maybe a new fixed field?). Audio books and video recordings already have a fixed field that says how long those items are, but I haven't seen an ILS yet that actually makes use of that fixed field and allows for specific searching (or limiting) by length in minutes.