We have all had the experience:
Someone at our enquiry service asking for a case, only they are vague on the details.
So you ask where they first found out about the case’s existence.
And they say: “off the tattoo on a woman”
We’ve all been there.
Law Librarians, like the FBI Agents on the US Dramas they sit at night watching on TV in their pyjamas and drinking wine, are never truly off duty.
So begins the mysterious case of…
Blindspot – for those who have not heard of it – is a US detective TV show. The protagonist of the series is a much tattooed amnesiac woman. The tattoos, though, are more than just sweet ink. Each one is a clue to a crime which hasn’t been committed yet. It is up to the FBI Agents to select and decode a tattoo in each episode in a race against the clock (it’s only a 45 minute show) to prevent the crime (the tattoos are cryptic and not just a list of dates and times and pertinent details pertaining to the crime).
Sort of an urban Quantum Leap for the millennials.
Our own SLLG Agent, Maria, sat watching episode 1.7 (Authentic Flirt) when her librarian senses started tingling.
Having brought home FBI photos of the girl’s tattoos, Agent Patterson’s boyfriend picks one or two up to try helping out and recognises one as depicting the door to the entrance of the Brooklyn Historical Society library. But what about the roman numerals tattooed as part of the door? Could it be a Dewey class? No! An ISBN!
Agent Patterson breaks the roman number down – it isn’t a modern 13 digit ISBN, but a 10 digit ISBN. “Whatever this book is, it’s old.” the agent declares, “It was published pre-2007, when 13-digit ISBNs started being used. So we are looking at a 10-digit ISBN and 3 other numbers – possibly a page”.
Maria could hardly believe what she was seeing wasn’t through rosé-tinted glasses when the detective work lead the cast of the show to the library where they input the ISBN into the OPAC and, on dashing to the shelf, remove…
Faculty Decisions, 1787-1792!
In it they find page 111 has numerous letters circled in pencil. They quickly crack the coded message on the page and save the day.
But, for Maria, the legal information enquiry had only just begun.
Maria wanted to know more. Was this page 111 from a real report? Did someone own the page with the code pencilled in it? Maria tweeted a screenshot of the show to the SLLG and Faculty of Advocates and her Twitter followers.
Anneli – a law librarian in England and BIALL member – read the tweet and concurred that she also saw the episode and wanted more answers: was the volume genuine?
Could law librarians find the law report?
Anneli, did what any good researcher does – she repeated the steps to see if she could replicate the results and find the same volume. She rewound the videotape.
To her excitement, the Brooklyn Historical Society exists and there is an OPAC to their library collection:
But the library does not hold Faculty Decisions.
Even if it did, the FBI Agent’s ISBN search would have proven fruitless outside the show.
It is true that the 13-digit ISBN only came into distribution in 2007. Agent Patterson in Blindspot is quite correct there. However, although she authentically recalls this rather obscure 10 to 13 digit ISBN fact, she fails to register the wholly more important fact here: the 10 digit ISBN only came into being in 1970.
Going to the ISBN Agency site would have given Agent Patterson the start year of 2007 for generating 13-digits as well as more fun ISBN information. Interestingly, the ISBN site doesn’t mention when the 10-digit variant began. A quick Wikipedia search for ISBN, though, would have told the Agent ISBNs only came into existence in 1970 and before that was the SBN, a 9-digit version which itself had a very limited run from just 1966.
An ISBN field search in the OPAC would not have retrieved the record for Faculty Decisions published in 1792 (which being a series title would more likely have an ISSN anyway, but I digress).
Undaunted, Anneli searched BAILII for the cases shown most fully on screen:
- Lord MacLeod against Alexander Ross and Charles Munro
- John Hay against Andrew Sinclair
This was a wise move because BAILII now includes the full text of Morison’s Dictionary of Decisions (and supplements) in the database.
Morison’s Dictionary is still used as the best source of Scots law cases which predate the Session Cases series. It contains copiously detailed reports for most of the cases heard in the Court of Session 1540-1808 (arranged by legal subject) and, critically, also provides citations to where else a case is reported.
MacLeod against Ross and Munro is found at 1788 Mor. 16070 and gives a report citation of Fac. Col. 22, p. 37.
John Hay against Andrew Sinclair is found 1788 Mor. 1194 and Fac. Col. 28, p. 45.
Both found in Faculty Decisions, 1787-1792, just as Agent Patterson deduced.
Maria put a call out for librarians to look at their own sets of Faculty Decisions. However, early Faculty Decision volumes are rarities. The Society of Advocates in Aberdeen didn’t have the earliest volumes. Only a few libraries retain them to that early extent. Maria knew a library that did though and asked the Advocates Library in Edinburgh to check their complete set.
Faculty Decisions is the precursor and, for a time, parallel series to Session Cases. They are the official law reports of the Court of Session 1752-1841. They are taken from the Faculty Collection (indeed, the Decisions remained cited as the Faculty Collection Fac. Col. until 1825), which were Court of Session reports collated by members of the Faculty of Advocates, more commonly known as Session Papers and unique to the shelves of the Advocates Library.
Reading only a few prescient paragraphs of any history or introduction to Scots law, say, A History of Private Law in Scotland, edited by Reid and Zimmerman, for example, would have explained this to the FBI Agent Patterson and her boyfriend.
The Advocates Library holds the volume in question. It confirmed the citation matched the case. But page 111 was completely different.
Did page 111 refer, then, to a third currently unknown case, in another book? The key now was finding what was the case being reported on that page 111.
Anneli turned to Westlaw and their full text search.
If this was a Bond movie Anneli wouldn’t just be clicking links from her desktop PC, she’d be travelling to exotic locations by now – posing as a femme fatale legal historian in Brooklyn! Infiltrating Westlaw HQ in London at an evening soiree with a USB stick disguised as lip balm! And… visiting wherever BAILII is!
From the words seen on the page on screen, Anneli transcribed a few key phrases.
Amazingly the search proved the third case theory revealing it as a case, again printed in Morison’s Dictionary.
Morison’s also gave another report citation: Fac. Col. 199, p. 229.
It led back to Faculty Decisions 1787-1792 and its mismatching page 111.
Maria got in touch with the SLLG. The trail had gone cold. Could we write something on the SLLG blog?
I studied what evidence Maria and Anneli passed to us. Maria and Anneli had established all 3 cases were in a single volume – but that volume had a different page 111 from the show. I looked at the photos, was there anything I could do to try helping out?
I couldn’t help but think straight away: were we now faced with the infamous ‘Magic Bullet’ theory? Another report of the same case being used, masquerading as the report printed in this volume of Faculty Decisions? Was there a 2nd shooter?
Studying the page from the show closely, we see the header “—rt of Session”.
Again, only Faculty of Decisions uses this (Session Cases use ‘Court of Session &c.’ until 1969). It seems like a lot of effort was made to make a page look genuine, when they had a genuine page literally to hand.
The page was starting to show the signs of foxing all over its integrity.
The enquiry was back to where it all began: the dodgy ISBN as the only lead for us and Agent Patterson. Could it still mean anything?
Maria had entered it into Google when the episode first aired and concluded the ISBN represented nothing at all. Or didn’t it? I wasn’t so certain.
Presenting a 10-digit ISBN in roman numerals is ludicrously stupid. Almost too stupid. This is because, like all legitimate ISBNs, it “checks out” when a mathematical algorithm is applied to it. The 10-digit ISBN, therefore, must have a last number from 0-10 and 10 (being 2-digits long) is represented as an… X!
What if the 10th number was an X? Then the ISBN could be a 9-digit IBN from 1966-1969 and it was a 4th number for the code breakers to find elsewhere! And: Faculty of Decisions 1787-1792 is volume X! Pieces were all starting to slot into the puzzle.
That fake ISBN is clearly part of a bigger code. They’d need a cataloguer on the inside, sure, to put it erroneously into the MARC record of the Brooklyn Historical Society catalogue for it to relate to Faculty of Decisions 1787-1792, but cataloguers can be a shady bunch. So I’ve heard.
That number could get us somewhere. Not to the correct case, or whatever it was we were trying to find, but to somewhere, maybe being something?
But there was no screenshot to confirm if X was the 10th roman numeral that it surely had to be.
The situation was all too obvious. I was going to need to pull an all-nighter forensically looking at a lot of images of those tattoos all over that actress to find it.
Maria knew I’d lost sight of the original reason for our investigation. “Mulder! It’s over!” she exclaimed. She was right. I’d gotten too deep! I deleted “Tattooed ISBN women” from the Google image search box. The information enquiry was finally finished.
Together, we pieced together the clues we had to resolve our investigation. The volume and the cases were all legitimate but page 111 shown on the screen was likely a composite created for the purposes of TV.
The plot device was probably deliberately made with such incredibly oblique references woven into it that nobody of sound mind would attempt to track it down, find that it was not held by the Brooklyn Historical Society, wouldn’t have an ISBN and was not an accurate print of page 111 and break the credibility of a show where tattoos are codes to crimes which haven’t been committed yet. Yes, you’d need to be severely unhinged to find a chink in the believability of that show, by those means.
But the producers of Blindspot were wrong. What we discovered is actually a pretty decent training exercise for law librarians.
Can you locate Page 111?
Many thanks to Maria and Anneli for permission to use their photographs in this blog and for letting us tell this fun adventure (with some license) to our SLLG members.