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Ask a Librarian — We’re Open for (Online) Business!

The following is a guest post by Peter Armenti, a research specialist in the Researcher and Reference Services Division. It tells you how to access the Library’s fantastic online reference desk, even while our physical offices are temporarily closed.

Reference librarians, some growing “telework beards,” monitor the Library’s Ask a Librarian service while at home. Photo: Megan Armenti.

Most of the Library’s reference librarians, including myself, are now teleworking in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But our Ask a Librarian service remains open! While our ability to completely answer some of your questions may sometimes be limited by our lack of access to the Library’s physical collections, we are committed to answering your questions to the fullest extent possible. If we need to wait to consult the Library’s physical resources before getting back to you, we’ll let you know.

Fortunately, many questions we receive can be answered remotely through digital resources, whether these be our subscription databases, our digital collections, or free online resources. One is these is how to find a beloved book when the researcher doesn’t remember the title or author. I’ve noticed an uptick in this type of question during the past couple weeks, which I attribute to many people seeking “comfort reads” during these stressful times.

Whether you’re trying to locate a book series for girls whose main character’s name starts with an A, a romance novel in which twin sisters switch places and die in an explosion on their lover’s yacht, or a male-authored poetry book about love and drinking that has a yellow cover (all real examples recently received), my colleagues and I are here to help! Feel free to submit your question to our Ask a Librarian service and we’ll do our best to track down the right book.

When submitting your question, provide as much information as possible about the book’s content, physical format, and the context in which you originally encountered or read the book. Some types of information we’ve found to be extremely helpful are details about the book’s content, physical format and context.

  • 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.
  • Physical Format. Size and shape of the book; hardcover or paperback; number of pages; color of binding; presence of dust jacket; 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?

We can’t claim a 100% success rate—though my colleagues are pretty darn good!—even if we can’t find the right work, you’re not completely out of luck. We’ve created an entire resource guide, Lost Titles, Forgotten Rhymes, that you can consult for further guidance on strategies and resources for locating “lost” novels, stories, and poems. This includes a number of other resources you can contact to seek help from librarians and fellow readers.

Our Ask a Librarian service, of course, isn’t limited to book identification questions. The Library is home to twenty different reading room and research centers, each with their own range of subject and format specialties. If you have a question, whether it’s related to poetry and literature or a completely different subject, simply complete our General Inquiries Ask a Librarian form. Our reference staff will refer your questions to the area of the Library or subject specialist best able to answer your questions and in adherence to our Reference Correspondence Policy.

So what are you waiting for? Ask away!

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