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Finding Truth in Fiction

This article has been archived and may no longer be updated.


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


   Originally published by Law Office Computing (Apr/May 2004) under the title, "Searching Facts: Stranger Than Fiction?" Revised to reflect resources and strategies current as of the date appearing at the end of the page.


31 August 2004. Lawyer X walks into the client meeting, which is already underway. Having invited him a few minutes ago, the partner welcomes him. She needs a good researcher, if what she suspects is true.

Addressing the client, Partner Muse says, "I'd like X to hear this from the beginning. Would you mind repeating what you just told me?"

The client, the owner of a small automotive business that services cars and sells parts, explains that a woman, who alleges she was abducted while waiting for service, has sued the company.

"She said she didn't see her abductor. He took her to an abandoned building," the client continues. "But she doesn't remember the location. She described it as a large abandoned warehouse.

"She said he hit her over the head, and when she woke up she was alone in a semi-dark room. She tried to find her way out of the building, but all the doors were locked and the windows barred. She began searching for something to jimmy the lock, but instead found a long string lying near the area where she awoke. She followed it through a maze of rooms until she found a partly opened window in a remote part of the building.

"That is how she made her escape," he concludes the bizarre tale.

Before the client can launch into his concerns about the lawsuit, Partner Muse asks Lawyer X, "What do make of this kidnapping?"

"I suppose it could happen," X begins, "But it sounds like fiction. She didn't see her abductor and doesn't remember where he took her. She escaped by following a piece of string. Weird."

Agreeing, Muse asks, "Is searching fiction possible? Do you think we could find a crime novel with a scene like this?"

Finding the contents of a book online generally presents more of a challenge than locating other full-text documents. Traditional databases such as PsycINFO, AGRICOLA and ERIC, which are available independently on the Web or through aggregators such as Dialog and Westlaw, provide mostly bibliographic information about books and book chapters.

Other specialty databases, such as Chisum on Patents (CHISUM on Lexis) or the Manual on Employment Discrimination and Civil Rights Actions in the Federal Courts (MEDCRA on Westlaw) contain the text of specific books. However, while increasingly more available, these databases are not yet common.

Traditionally, researchers depended on library card catalogs to help them find a book. In recent years, these finding aids migrated to the Web, making them accessible even to communities beyond the library's service boundaries. While they are helpful, they don't enable searching the full-text of a book.

In the legal field, IndexMaster goes a step beyond the concept of a library catalog by providing book indices and tables of contents. Search the keyword, "viatical," for example, to find books on estate planning and securities law, which cover this kind of investment.

The National Academy of Sciences and the reference service, xrefer, represent two different resources in a growing category of specialty book search engines. The National Academy of Sciences' Discovery Engine queries the text of National Academies Press publications in addition to its Web documents. Enter one or more words without connectors--"chemical weapons," for example--to find matching reports and other publications. The results let you display the page or pages on which your keywords appear.

Xreferplus, an online reference service for libraries, enables searching about 150 general and topical encyclopedias and dictionaries. It's useful for finding facts as well as general information about a variety of topics.

More recently, word leaked that Google is experimenting with indexing excerpts of books. The excerpts come from the inside cover, reviews on the book jacket, author biographies or the introduction. Google provides matches from book excerpts in regular search results. In other words, you cannot search books separately.

Is there an electronic source that will help Lawyer X find a crime depicted in a novel? Possibly the most significant development in searching book content was Amazon.com's recent announcement of its "Search Inside This Book" feature. The search engine finds your keywords within the pages of a book. However, like any database containing massive amounts of information, it returns more meaningful results when you enter a specific query.

To illustrate, suppose you want information about the role of genetics in brain cancer. If you enter the query "genetics brain cancer" (without quotations) in the book search box, you will retrieve more than 14,000 results. Astrocytomas account for about 60% of all primary brain tumors. Using the more specific term, "genetics astrocytoma," reduces the number of results to a little more than 350.

A little-known advanced search feature at Amazon.com, called Power Search, provides more options for constructing a precise query. It enables searching certain segments of a book. For example, in reviewing the results of the previous query, you discover that Amazon.com indexes many of the books you find useful in the "oncology" subject category. Thus, the query, "keywords: (genetics and astrocytoma) and subject: oncology," further whittles the list of matching books down to fewer than 60.

You also discover that books on this topic written for medical professionals appear in the "pharmacology" category. Modifying the search so that you now run "keywords: (astrocytoma and genetics) and subject: (pharmacology or oncology)," retrieves a little more than 70 books.

How does "Search Inside This Book" help Lawyer X in finding a fictional crime? He could enter one or more keywords that describe the crime, but in this case, one of the key elements of the victim's story involves a piece of string. While he understands that the victim means a thread or thin length of cord, the search engine does not. It might interpret multiple meanings for the word, even when used in conjunction with other relevant concepts, as in a string of abductions.

After a couple of trial and error queries, X discovers that books likely to contain such a scene are categorized as "mystery" novels. He enters the query, "subject: (mystery) and keywords: ((kidnapping or abduction) and string and maze)," which returns more than 300 books. While it's a lot to wade through, it's a start.

The top-ranking book is titled "The Maze." He clicks the title and finds a second search option that lets him query the pages of this specific book. A search for the word, "string," produces several references to a String Killer as well as a snippet that sounds like the story the client related. Page 91 of the paperback edition describes how the serial killer knocks his victims on the head, takes them to a deserted building and then teases them with a string that leads to their death.

"This is brilliant, X!" exclaims the partner. "How in the world did you find it?"

X dodges what he imagines is a rhetorical question. "It wasn't easy." Then he adds, "But it could have been worse."

Partner Muse just shakes her head. "Well, then, I guess you should start a background investigation on the plaintiff."

Lawyer X agrees, reminding himself that no good deed goes unpunished.



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Created: 31 August 2004
Revised: 18 October 2007 (no text revisions)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/archive/fiction_search.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com