Nearly every day I receive questions from readers trying to track down a poem they read years ago whose title and author they’ve forgotten. Typically, they recall a few words or phrases from the poem, the approximate year in which they read the poem, and little else. They also usually indicate that they’ve conducted numerous keyword searches for the poem through an internet search engine such as Google but either found zero results or too many irrelevant results to sift through expeditiously. This leads me to the topic of today’s post: How do librarians track down the full text of poems based on a few remembered words or phrases, especially when search engines fail them?
Increasingly often, the answer is the deep web.
The deep web, most simply, refers to information and resources available on the Web that cannot be retrieved through standard search engines. Instead, access to this buried information can be found only through a search of more specialized databases and search tools.
Two of the most important deep web databases for locating poems are Google Books and the HathiTrust Digital Library, both of which provide access to the full or partial text of millions of digitized books and periodicals. The content of these resources is not completely indexed through search engines, which means you need to search directly within them to conduct a comprehensive search of their content. It’s well worth taking a bit of extra time during your sleuthing to check these resources, however, since they are invaluable tools for locating obscure poems that have been published in books and periodicals.
Let me demonstrate the effectiveness of deep web databases for locating poems by walking you through a reference question I received last week. Here is the question, which my patron kindly granted me permission to reproduce:
I am trying to find the missing lines from a torn copy of a poem. I’ve tried searches at LOC.gov, poetryfoundation.org, poetryarchive.org, poets.org, etc. without success. The author of the poem, Augustus Post, may be the same Augustus Post (12/8/1873-10/4/1952) who was an aviator, was associated with the Wright Brothers, and founded the American Automobile Association. Using WorldCat I turned up some titles by an August Post, but these titles appear to be works on aviation history. Can someone guide me to a resource that would help complete the lines of this poem, shown below?
Here’s the poem:
“I AM FLIGHT”
I am flight…
I compete with time,
I annihilate distance,
I eliminate frontiers,
I bring nations together,
I awaken the world,
I speed up trade,
I settle wars,
I strive for trophies,
I inspire youth,
I bring the future more quickly here,
I am the gift of gods to man,
I am the personification of perseverance,
I am the antithesis of “Can’t”.
I explo[…missing…]st part of the earth,
I make […missing…]m,
I top the high[…missing…]eaks,
I save the sick,
I bring succor to the needy,
I rescue the marooned,
I bear the message of peace more gladly than the bomb of destruction,
I sing the triumph of man over the last of the elements,
I use the greatest forces of nature,
My heartthrob beats the pulse of the world!
“I AM FLIGHT!”
By Augustus Post
First, I want to note that this question contains much more information about the wanted poem than I typically receive. Included are the name of the poem’s author, Augustus Post, the title of the poem, and many lines from the poem as recalled by the patron. The problem with finding the poem, though, is the same one encountered by people looking for poems based solely on a few words or phrases: a search of Google and major poetry websites fails to return any matches.
My initial step when looking for a poem such as this is to try replicating the patron’s search results to ensure the poem wasn’t overlooked in a resource the patron checked. In this instance, I decided to do this by searching the individual websites mentioned by the patron as well as the Google search engine, which indexes most of the sites’ content. With respect to Google, I tried searching for the poem using various combinations of the poem’s title, author, and lines. A search on the poem’s title and author, I found, returned zero results:
Similarly, a search on lines and phrases from the poem returned zero hits:
Searching the websites my patron mentioned also failed to return any possible matches.
My next step, in a case such as this, is almost always to search freely available deep web databases such as Google Books. It’s easy to assume that the Google search engine includes all content in the Google Books database, but this is not the case. To search all of the millions of books digitized through Google Books, I recommend using Google Books’ Advanced Search page. Alternatively, if you’ve already conducted an initial Google search, you can switch to viewing Google Books results by selecting the “Books” option under Google’s More tab.
When I switched my results to Google Books (you may need to re-add the quotation marks around the phrases once you switch to Google Books), I received a result that hadn’t appeared through the main Google search engine:
As soon as I saw this result, I knew I was making progress! Not only does it include the phrases from the poem on which I searched, but the “Snippet view” also shows the poem’s title (“I am Flight”), the name “Augustus Post,” as well as other lines from the poem that match the patron’s torn copy. Further, the results give me the title (How to Fly an Airplane: Basic Flight Instruction), author (Bernard Brookes), and publication date (1943) of the book in which the matching text appears. And clicking on the title of the book opens a “From inside the book page” that includes additional publication details for the book and shows a snippet view of page 9, on which the matching text appears:
The matching phrases, you can better tell from the above view, are part of a lineated text that certainly appears to be part of a poem. During my initial search, I played around with the “From inside the book” feature, searching on the poem’s title, author, and other phrases, until I was quite certain the full text of the poem appears in Brookes’s book.
The complete text of the book isn’t available through Google Books, so my next step was to look for a print copy of the book in the Library’s online catalog. I discovered that we do in fact hold a copy of How to Fly an Airplane. Now I merely needed to retrieve the book from our stacks to confirm that the poem appears in it and to provide a copy of the poem to the patron.
Before I did that, though, I wanted to see if the poem was published in any other books that I could find. Since Google Books returned only Brookes’s book, I next turned to the HathiTrust Digital Library. Using its Full-text Advanced Search option, I conducted a search for the phrases “augustus post” and “i am flight”:
Two results were returned, both for copies of Isaac Hampshur Jones’s book Flying Vistas; The Human Being, as Seen through the Eyes of the Flight Surgeon (Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1937):
HathiTrust does not make the full-text of Flying Vistas available online, but by clicking on the “Limited (search-only)” link I was able to search within the full-text of the book. Unlike Google Books, HathiTrust does not return snippet views for copyright-protected books, which would allow you to see the part of the page on which the matching text appears. However, it will tell you on which page(s) of the book a particular phrase appears, and how many occurrences of that phrase appear on each matching page. So, I conducted a limited, full-text search of Flying Vistas for the poem’s title and author:
The results indicate that both phrases appear on page 251 of Flying Vistas:
I next conducted searches for random lines that I knew appear in the poem, and each time received a match indicating that the line in question appears on page 251 or 252 of the Flying Vistas. Since the final two lines of the poem appear on page 252, I knew that the poem was unlikely to continue to page 253.
Flying Vistas, as I mentioned, isn’t digitally available through HathiTrust, but as with How to Fly an Airplane, the Library of Congress holds a print copy in our collections (we are the largest library in the world, after all!). My next step, then, was to fetch our hard copies of both books. I was particularly interested in reviewing the poem and surrounding text in Flying Vistas, since it was published in 1937, six years before Brookes’s book, and contains the earliest appearance of the poem I could find. I wanted to know if the book contained information verifying that the Augustus Post who authored the poem was in fact the same Augustus Post “who was an aviator, was associated with the Wright Brothers, and founded the American Automobile Association.”
As luck would have it, not only do both books include the entirety of Post’s poem, but the following paragraph by Jones precedes the printing of the poem in Flying Vistas.
Apparently, Post wrote the poem the day after he read a manuscript copy of Flying Vistas sent to him by Jones. This is an important clue, because surely the only Augustus Post to which Jones would send a manuscript of his book would be the celebrated aviator. Additionally, in the paragraph above, Jones refers back to Post’s time as a balloonist, which for me provides sufficient proof that this Augustus Post is the one my patron mentioned. I passed along my findings to the my patron, with an invitation to write back if any additional information was required.
The search example I’ve detailed above shows the value of deep web databases such as Google Books and HathiTrust in surfacing difficult-to-find poems. Among the other deep web resources useful in locating poems are the many historical newspaper databases now freely available online, such as the Library’s Chronicling America database, which can be checked for poems published in older newspapers. I encourage From the Catbird Seat readers conducting their own sleuthing for poems to try using these resources. In addition, my Lost Titles, Forgotten Rhymes web guide lists numerous other resources and search strategies you can use to identify a poem’s title, author, and full text, including many “traditional” reference tools librarians use when poem hunting that I haven’t discussed here.
If you have any questions about search techniques for locating poems (or novels, or short stories), or are interested in future blog posts outlining other search strategies and tools, let me know in the comments below. And of course, if you get stumped in your search for a poem, you can always Ask a Librarian. I or one of my colleagues-cum-professional poem sleuths will be happy to take our best shot at finding the right poem!