The following is a guest post by Abby Yochelson, English and American Literature Reference specialist at the Library of Congress’s Main Reading Room, Humanities and Social Sciences Division.
Can you help me find a novel I read about twenty years ago about time travel back to the dinosaur age?
I’m trying to find a poem for my mother. It’s about how life is like a tapestry and I think a few lines go something like this “And I in foolish pride/ Forget He sees the upper/ And I the underside.”
I’m looking for a detective series where the main character is named Witherspoon and he’s a teacher at an agricultural college, but I don’t know the author.
My grandmother read me this picture book when I was little, and now that I’m about to become a grandmother, I want to find this book. The cover was blue and had a bunny on it and it was about the baby bunny learning to hop.
Similar questions flood into the Library of Congress every day via our “Ask a Librarian” service as they do to public and academic libraries everywhere. We might be given characters’ names, book cover descriptions, sometimes a range of publication dates, a possible word or two in the title, and often plot descriptions. The plot descriptions can be as broad as “it was a scary book about children being chased by witches” or as detailed as “I think this book was set in the Midwest and is in the form of letters written to a pen pal. The letter writer’s favorite color is yellow and she likes to sit under a tree and eat apples.”
Librarians have developed a wealth of techniques and resources over the years to try to find the answers to such “I’m looking for…” questions. Historically, we have relied on such published reference sources as Granger’s Index to Poetry, Short Story Index, and Fiction Catalog; genre guides such as The Supernatural Index: A Listing of Fantasy, Supernatural, Occult, Weird, and Horror Anthologies; and library catalogs to attempt to find answers.
We check large catalogs such as the Library of Congress’s or WorldCat; the latter is a compiled listing of the holdings of 72,000 libraries! Unfortunately, individual poems or short stories normally don’t get listed in library catalogs. Subjects weren’t always assigned to fiction, and now that they are, they tend to be quite broad. In the past, catalog records did not usually contain summaries of the books (except for children’s books), so various clues we received about plots€•aliens in a western mining town€•were not as useful as the patrons hoped. Descriptions of the cover are often useless here at the Library of Congress because we strip off paper covers and frequently rebind materials. Characters might show up in the Dictionary of Fictional Characters or similar reference works, but obviously no one source lists all the characters in all the books!
When trying to identify poems, the many-volumed Granger’s Index to Poetry has helped librarians since 1904. It has allowed us to search by author, title, first line of the poem, last line of the poem, and by very broad subject€•can you image how many poems there are about nature? But often the poetry questions come to us with just a miscellaneous line or stanza not fitting into any of the findable categories.
The Internet and online databases have vastly increased our research capabilities for these “I’m looking for…” questions. Granger’s Index to Poetry is now the subscription database The Columbia Granger’s World of Poetry. It allows us to search multiple volumes at once, but even more useful, it contains the full text of many poems as does another subscription database, LitFinder. We are no longer reduced to only searching first or last lines.
Free full-text sites such as the HathiTrust Digital Library, the Internet Archive, and Google Books allow us to conduct broad searches that get within books for that particular line of poetry or character name. While it’s not always possible to see the full text of more recent materials, many of them are searchable and can lead us to a source we can find. Subscription databases found in many public libraries such as NoveList or Fiction Connection allow patrons to search by genre, setting, characters, and that all-important plot summary. Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com often include a publisher’s description of a book (we’re starting to add these to library catalogs), synopses of reviews, and readers’ reviews. Often the readers’ reviews include a lot of plot detail. And now you can frequently get an image of the cover that might match your memory!
The Poetry Foundation’s Web site has over 10,000 poems searchable by subject, occasion, author, etc. Thousands of individuals post or describe favorite poems and books on Web sites and blogs. So a general Internet search can sometimes instantaneously retrieve an item for which a librarian might have searched for hours or weeks in pre-computer days. There are also listservs and electronic bulletin boards based around such subjects as science fiction or children’s books. A question posted on one of these sites reaches thousands of readers who might recognize a book’s plot description even if an individual librarian can not locate it.
So, how can you learn librarians’ research strategies and the myriad sources we use when you are trying to answer your own “I’m looking for…” questions? Peter Armenti, superb librarian and frequent blogger here, has distilled this information into a marvelous Web site, Lost Titles, Forgotten Rhymes: How to Find a Novel, Short Story, or Poem Without Knowing its Title or Author. You’ll learn which sources are likely to be found at your library and which are freely available via the Internet. This Web site is equally useful for individuals looking for literary remembrances, as well as for librarians continuing to answer these questions.
Admittedly, I probably find an answer to the “I’m looking for” question less than 50% of the time, but my colleagues are treated to occasional shouts from my cubicle, “YES, a reference success!” As to the above questions: there are several novels about time travel and dinosaurs and the patron recognized the title when I gave him several choices; the poem is called variously “My Life is But a Weaving” or “The Tapestry Poem;” the detective is Witherall from a private school, but the patron was pleased to learn of another series featuring an agricultural college; and I still don’t know the bunny book!