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Lost Titles, Forgotten Rhymes:
How to Find a Novel, Short Story, or Poem Without Knowing its Title or Author

Link disclaimerFinding Novels

Searching the Web
   •General Search Engines
   •Online Book Databases
   •Library Catalogs
Calling on the Community
   •Posting to Message Boards
   •Posting to Listservs
   •Email/Web Form Services
   •Posting to Social Networking Sites
In the Library
   •Searching Subscription Databases
   •Searching Print Resources

Searching the Web

General Search Engines

It is often possible to identify a long-lost novel by going to an Internet search engine and searching on key elements of the book's plot, characters' names, and other remembered in-text details. For example, someone looking for an old fantasy novel featuring a character named Bink can search Google using the string bink "fantasy novel" and receive numerous rereferences to the correct title. Since search engines do not provide the same coverage of the Web, or return results based on the same relevancy rankings, it is a good idea to search multiple search engines and review at the least the first several pages of results when hunting for a book. Examples of search engines you may wish to use are:

Ask.com

Bing

Google

A selected listing of other search engines can be found here.

Online Book Databases

Several companies have recently begun to offer large-scale book search databases. When searching these databases, you are searching the full text of thousands, if not millions, of digitized books. The results you will receive may be digitized images of the pages on which your search terms appear, snippet views of your search terms and several sentences surrounding it, or a citation to the publication that includes your search terms (which you can use to locate the work through a local library). If the book is no longer under copyright, you will usually be able to browse the full text of the book to determine whether it is the correct one. If the book is still under copyright, you can typically browse several pages before and after your search results. In addition, the three major book databases mentioned below often allow users to limit their searches to the full text of individual books.

Amazon.com

Select Books from the Search drop-down menu to limit your search to books, or use the Advanced search page for higher-precision searching. Check each result for an Excerpt field that provides a snippet view of the term in context. Learn more about Amazon's Search Inside the Book feature.

Google Books

See the About page for details. The Advanced Book Search option is recommended, since it allows for more refined searches.

Other book databases can be found through The Online Books Page.

Library Catalogs

Library catalogs allow users to limit searches for book records by a number of criteria, including publication date range, intended audience (juvenile or adult), and subject. In addition, many library catalogs now provide brief annotations or summaries of works of fiction: when users search a catalog by keyword, they will retrieve records for books that include the search terms in the annotation/summary field. Combining a keyword search with the use of search limiters is an excellent way to create a list of possible book matches that you can browse in a single sitting. Browsing catalogs by subject is another way to create a manageable list of recent book records, although many older book titles may not appear (many library catalogs did not supply subject headings for older works of fiction until the past few decades). Several major library catalogs you may wish to search or browse are:

FictionFinder

Provides access to 2.8 million works of fiction found in the OCLC WorldCat database. Users can browse the database by genre, fictional character, imaginary place or setting, and subject; and search the database for book summaries.

Library of Congress Online Catalog

Users can limit searches of this catalog, which holds approximately 14 million records, by publication date, place of publication, language, and format (e.g., books), and then conduct a keyword search to retrieve matching records. Browsing the catalog by subject heading is another way to locate relevant records.

NLS Online Catalog

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped online catalog includes many book summaries that are not available through other library catalogs.

WorldCat

WorldCat is a collective catalog of more than 10,000 libraries around the world. Use the Advanced Search option to create a book search based on numerous criteria, including publication range, audience, content, subject, and keyword.

Calling on the Community

Draw upon the collective wisdom of the crowd by posting your query to literature-related message boards, listservs, and email services listed below. By posting to these resources, you tap into the expertise and reading histories of dozens, hundreds, or sometimes thousands of readers ready to help reconnect you to a lost book.

Information to Include in Your Query

When writing your question, provide as much information as possible about the book or novel's content, physical format, and the context in which you originally encountered or read the book.

Content. Identify, if possible, the book's intended audience (adults, young adults, or children); its genre (science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, etc.); all remembered elements of the book's plot, especially any "odd" or particularly memorable scenes or incidents that might help differentiate the book from others with a similar plot; any unique names, words, and phrases you recall from the book; and the book's cover image and any illustrations, if present.

Physical Format. Size and shape of book; hardcover or paperback; number of pages; color of binding; presence of dustjacket; inclusion of illustrations (color or black and white).

Context. In approximately what year did you read the book (be sure not to state only that you read the book "as a child," or "when in high school," which gives no indication of the actual year you read it)? Was the book recently published at the time you read it? Did you read the book as part of a school or work assignment, or for leisure?

Posting to Message Boards

The message boards listed below are visited by readers willing to help users identify novels. Free registration is sometimes required. Try general Web searches to locate other message boards dedicated to literary discussions.

General

Barnes & Noble Book Clubs - Lost Books

This message board hosted by the bookseller Barnes & Noble was created to help readers identify books whose authors and titles they've forgotten.

BookSleuth

Submit all of the details you can recall about a book to this message board, and have a world-wide community of readers help you find it.

LibraryThing: Name That Book

This forum, part of the book cataloging and social networking Web site LibraryThing, includes more than 1,150 members ready to assist anyone trying to identify a book. See also the Name That Book wiki, which includes a list of other resources readers can use to locate lost books.

Loganberry Books: Stump the Bookseller

Perhaps the premier book-search site on the Web. For a $4 fee, submit your query to Stump the Bookseller and have the community's readers cull their memories for the right book.

Reddit - Tip Of My Tongue (TOMT)

This message board (subreddit) on the Reddit website is designed to help users locate a book, movie, video game, song, or other item they can't quite recall. Free registration is required to submit a post. When submitting a post about a book, preface your post with the title of the Reddit page [TOMT] and the category [BOOK]. For example:

[TOMT] [BOOK] I am looking for a science fiction book about WWIII set in Australia....

What's The Name of That Book???

This Goodreads message board, devoted to helping people find books they remember reading, comprises more than 5,000 members. Be sure to view its page on how to post to the board.

What Was That Book?

A large community from the LiveJournal social networked dedicated to helping readers find fogotten books, poems, short stories, and plays. Be sure to view its tips for posting to the site.

By Genre

Children's Literature

Little Golden Book Collector

Looking for a Little Golden Book? Not sure if a book you're trying to find is a Little Golden Book? Post your question to this forum for help.

Old Children's Books

This bookseller Web site includes suggested resources for locating children's books. For readers searching for children's books published before 1950, contact information to submit your query directly to staff of Old Children's Books is also provided.

SurLaLune Fairy Tales

If you are trying to identify a fairy tale (or folk tale), the SurLaLune Fairy Tales message board is one of the resources you should consult. This message board is read by scholars, teachers, and writers of fairy tales, as well as other members of the public with a vested interest in fairy tales.

Romance

All About Romance: Let's Talk Romance Novels Forum

All About Romance is one of the largest online Web sites for readers of romance novels. Its Let's Talk Romance Novels Forum allows users to seek assistance tracking down authors and titles of romance novels.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

Science Fiction and Fantasy World

Includes individual boards for science fiction, fantasy and horror, and general fiction. The fantasy board is by far the most active.

Posting to Listservs

Like message boards, listservs are a way to draw upon the collective memories and resources of readers throughout the world. Broadly speaking, the listservs mentioned below are frequented by a larger number of librarians, teachers, authors, and scholars than the aforementioned message boards. By posting to these listservs, you are putting your question before audiences with different reading habits, search strategies, and resources available for finding novels. It is often wise to submit your question to both message boards and listservs to ensure it is read by the widest possible range of audiences. You may wish to ask a librarian at your local library to submit your question to listservs on your behalf so that you don't need to worry about subscribing and unsubscribing.

The following list of listservs is not comprehensive. To locate other listservs to which you can submit your question, try searching Topica, Tile.Net, CataList, Google Groups, and Yahoo! Groups.

General Listservs

Fiction_L

From the Web site: "The collective wisdom of Fiction_L participants has proved very helpful for librarians trying to locate an obscure title for a patron or in creating a booklist for an upcoming event. This list has come up with answers to numerous fiction and non-fiction "stumpers" much to the delight of many patrons, as well as librarians, happy to find the title of a book they read 20 years ago (or just a couple months ago)."

Project Wombat

Project Wombat is an e-mail discussion list for difficult reference questions. Project Wombat is read by librarians, scholars, students, professionals, and people from all walks of life, so by posting your question to the listserv you are drawing upon the collective memories and resources of thousands of people. As such, Project Wombat is a great place to ask about a book for which you remember only the plot.

By Genre

Children's Literature

Child_Lit

Child_Lit is read by children's librarians, children's writers and illustrators, school teachers, and many others with a special interest in children's literature.

PUBYAC

A listserv for those with an interest in children and young adult services in public libraries.

Mystery Fiction

DorothyL

One of the leading listservs for mystery lovers.

Romance

All About Romance

Read by more than 800 people with an interest in romance novels.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

SF-LIT

A listserv for literary discussion of science fiction and fantasy.

Email/Web Form Services

General

The Digital Reference Section, Library of Congress

Librarians from the Digital Reference Section of the Library of Congress will be happy to search available resources to help you find that elusive novel.

Reference librarians at most public libraries can help you with your search for a novel. Learn how to find contact information for your local public library here.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

The Other Change of Hobbit: Department of Lost Stories

Email the staff of The Other Change of Hobbit bookstore to have them help you track down science fiction and fantasy novels and stories.

Posting to Social Networking Sites

If you have an account with a social networking Web site or app (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), consider posting your query to an appropriate literary group or channel, and especially your network of online "friends" or "followers." If the book or story is one you read while in school, former classmates connected to you through online social networks—including alumni or class reunion sites—are uniquely positioned to recall a work you were required to read as part of your school curriculum.

In the Library

Subscription Databases (available at many public and academic libraries)

Book and Reader's Advisory Databases

These databases, while similar to library catalogs, often offer more robust search options and results for works of fiction that make it easy to find a novel and determine whether it is the one for which you are looking. You should contact your local public library to see if it has access to these, or similar, databases. A librarian there will be able to offer guidance on searching the databases.

Full-Text Periodical Databases

A keyword search on a character's name or plot detail in a full-text periodicals database can return a book review in a newspaper or magazine, or an article on a book, that allows you to identify the novel for which you've been looking. You should check with your local library to determine which periodical databases it makes available. Examples you may wish to search include:

Print Resources

Bowker's Guide to Characters in Fiction

If you know the name of a character that appears in the novel you read, you can search Bowker's Guide to Characters in Fiction. If the character is indexed, a reference will be provided to the book in which the character appears. Read the publisher's page for more details.

Other books that index fictional characters can be found by under the Library of Congress Subject Heading Characters and characteristics in literature--Dictionaries.

Many of the subscription databases listed in the preceding section, such as Books in Print and Fiction Catalog, are also available in print. If your library does not have access to the database versions of these resources, it may hold the print editions.

 

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  October 10, 2014
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