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Lost Titles, Forgotten Rhymes: A Guide to Finding Novels, Stories, and Poems

Finding Novels

Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man. 1952. Herman Finkelstein Collection, Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

There are many tools and resources you or a librarian at your local library can use to identify a novel whose title and author you can't recall. Use the table of contents below to explore these options.

Searching the Web for Novels

Calling on the Community

In the Library

If you still need help finding a lost title of a novel, story, or poem, try our Ask a Librarian service found in the left navigation column on this page.

Searching the Web for Novels

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 references to the correct title.

General Search Engines

Since different search engines provide different coverage of the Web, and return results based on different relevancy rankings, it is a good idea to use more than one search engine to hunt for a book. Currently, Google and Microsoft's Bing are probably the two best general search engines, though several other options are listed on the "Search Engine Journal" website linked below.

Online Book Databases

Several companies now offer freely accessible 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 often 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 option to create a book search based on numerous criteria, including publication date, audience, content, subject, and keyword.

Library Catalogs

Library catalogs allow users to limit searches for book records by a number of criteria, including publication dates, intended audience (e.g., 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 library 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:

Calling on the Community

Draw upon the collective wisdom of the crowd by posting your query to the 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; and any unique names, words, and phrases you recall from the book. Describe, if you can, 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 give 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 discussions of books and literature.

General Message Boards

Genre-based Forums and Message Boards

Children's Literature
Romance
Science Fiction and Fantasy

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 CataList External and Google Groups External.

General Listservs

By Genre

Children's Literature
​​Mystery Fiction
Romance
Science Fiction and Fantasy

Email/Web Form Services

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.  In addition to contacting your local library, also consider submitting your questions to the following:

Posting to Social Networking Sites

If you have an account with a social networking website or app (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), consider posting your query to an appropriate literary group or channel, as well as 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.

Special Note about Goodreads and Other Book Sharing Websites

Some social reading book sites, such as Goodreads, include user-generated lists of books based on plot elements, themes, or other characteristics shared by the books on each list. The Goodreads book lists, for instance, include the following lists, among many others, that Library of Congress staff have used to help find books for patrons:

In the Library

At the Library of Congress or your local academic or public library, you will have access to tools to locate information about novels using both subscription databases and print materials available at the library.

Subscription Database Resources

The subscription resources marked with a padlock  are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress.  If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.

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 Subscription Databases 

Full-text periodical databases are available at many academic libraries and some public libraries.

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

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. Additional print resources include: