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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 Poems

Whittier's Barefooted Boy
Whittier's Barefooted Boy.
Chromolithographic print,
Prints and Photographs Division.
Reproduction Number:

Searching the Web
   •General Search Engines
   •Online Book Databases
   •Library Catalogs
Calling on the Community
   •Information to Include in Your Query
   •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
Special Searches: Finding Your Registered Poem or Contest Winner
   •Poems Registered with the U.S. Copyright Office
   •Poems Submitted to Poetry Contests

Searching the Web

General Search Engines

It's often possible to identify a long-lost poem by going to a search engine and searching for unique names, places, words, or phrases that appear in the poem, potential words in the title, and the author's possible first or last name. For example, to find the title and author of the poem with the phrase "stop all the clocks," users can search the Yahoo! search engine on the string "stop all the clocks" poem to receive numerous references to the correct poem. Since no two search engines provide the same coverage of the Web, or return results according to the same relevancy rankings, it is a good idea to use multiple search engines and review, at the least, the first several pages of results from each when hunting for a poem. Examples of search engines you may wish to use are:

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

Online Book Databases

Several companies now 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'll usually be able to browse the full text of the book to read the entire poem and determine whether it's the correct one. If the book is still under copyright, you can typically browse several pages before and after your search results (enough to read the complete text of shorter poems). In addition, the four major book databases mentioned below also often allow users to limit their search to the full text of individual books.

Select Books from the search drop-down menu to limit your search to books, or used the Advanced search page higher-precision searching, or searching for a line or phrase in a poem. Many entries for books include a "Look Inside" option that allows you to conduct a keyword search of the full-text of a book, which can help you determine if it is the correct one.

Google Book Search

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

HathiTrust Digital Library

HathiTrust currently makes available more than 5.3 million public domain digitized volumes. The HathiTrust Digital Library complements content available through Google Books: while some content between the two services overlaps, HathiTrust provides some content Google does not, including digital collections unique to participating institutions, works from institutional repositories, and native born-digital materials. In addition to the standard HathiTrust search interface and Advanced Search Page, a prototype search interface available through WorldCat Local is also available.

Internet Archive: Ebook and Texts Archive

The Internet Archive includes the full text of more than 4.5 million online books and texts, including works of poetry, fiction, popular books, children's books, historical texts, and academic books.

Other book databases can be found through the University of Pennsylvania's The Online Books Page.

Library Catalogs

Library catalogs do not typically index poems published in books, and as such are useful primarily when trying to identify a long poem published as a book. If you are searching for a short poem, feel free to skip this section. If you are searching for a poem published as a book and would like to search a library catalog for it, a catalog will usually allow you to limit searches for book records by a number of criteria, including publication date, intended audience (juvenile or adult), and subject. In addition, many library catalogs now provide brief summaries of books: when users search a catalog by keyword, they will retrieve records for books that include the search terms in the 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 relevant book records. Two major library catalogs you may wish to search are:

Library of Congress Online Catalog

Users can limit this catalog of approximately 18 million records by publication date, place of publication, language, and format (e.g., books), and then conduct a keyword search to retrieve matching records.


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

Additional Tips for searching the Web:

Take Advantage of Advanced Search Pages

  • When using a searching engine or database to search for a poem, always check for an Advanced Search option, which will allow you to search by criteria--which can include title, first line of text, subject, publisher, web domain, and more--not available through the general search box.

Include Additional Descriptive Keywords

  • If your initial search returns too many results, try further limiting your search by adding to your initial search string words or phrases that may appear in the poem; the form you the poem may take (e.g., sonnet or vilanelle); or other details about the poem, such as its possible title or author, that you originally may have omitted.
  • Many poems from the 19th and early 20th centuries were intended for instructional use in the classroom or for performance. These poems were often described as monologues, recitations, declamations, or as exercises for improving elocution, and the books these poems were published in often include these terms in their titles. If you are looking for a poem published before 1950 that was likely to be read by students, try adding these descriptive terms to your keyword searches if you need to further limit your search

Calling on the Community

Draw upon the collective wisdom of the crowd by posting your query to literature-related message boards. By posting to these forums, you bring to bear on your search the reading histories of numerous readers with a significant interest in literature, including poetry.

Information to Include in Your Query

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

Content. Identify, if possible, the poem's target audience (adults or children); its form (sonnet, vilanelle, free verse, etc.) and length (several lines, several stanzas, several pages, etc.); any details you can recall about what the poem is "about"; any words or phrases from the poem that you can recall, especially particularly memorable or unique words or phrases that might help differentiate the poem from others with a similar theme or style; and whether the poem was published in a standalone collection, an anthology, a periodical, or on the Web.

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

Posting to Message Boards

You can find appropriate message boards and forums to which you can submit your query on the Finding Novels page of this guide. While most of these boards and forums are dedicated primarily to helping people find novels, many of them, such as LibraryThing's Name That Book and BookSleuth, can also be used for tracking down a poem you once read and can no longer recall.

Posting to Listservs

Like message boards, listservs are a way to draw upon the collective memories and resources or readers throughout the world. By posting to listservs, you are putting your question before audiences with different reading habits, search strategies, and resources available for finding poems. 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 a listserv on your behalf, so that you don't need to worry about subscribing and unsubscribing.

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 poem you need help finding.

To locate other listservs to which you can submit your question, try searching Tile.Net, CataList, Google Groups, and Yahoo! Groups.

Email/Web Form Services

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 poem.

The Poetry Library

Staff at this extensive British poetry library are "happy to help you with any information need you might have on poetry whether it be bibliographical details, the wording of a quotation, addresses for publishers of books, pamphlets and magazines or what might be 'going on' on a particular day."

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

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." Former classmates connected to you through online social networks—including alumni or class reunion sites—are uniquely positioned to recall a poem you were required to read as part of your school curriculum.

In the Library

Searching Subscription Databases (available at many public and academic libraries)

Book and Reader's Advisory Databases

These databases serves as indexes or full-text repositories of poetry that can be used to identify poems based on a number of criteria such as subject, first or last line, full text, and title or author keywords. You should contact your local 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.

The Columbia Granger's World of Poetry

The premier poetry index, with 250,000 poems in full text and 450,000 citations. The online database includes entries from the 8th print edition (1985) to present. Since the print volumes of Granger's do not cumulate, you will need to search earlier print editions (eds. 1-7) to ensure a comprehensive search.

LitFinder (includes PoemFinder)

Includes more than 140,000 full-text poems, and approximately 850,000 poem citations and excerpts

Full-Text Periodical Databases

A keyword search on a unique phrase or possible poem title in a full-text periodicals database can return the full-text of a reference to the poem 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:

Searching Print Resources

See the online guide "How to Find Poems in the Library of Congress" for a list of print resources you can use to help locate poems by title, subject, keyword, first line, and last line. Many of these print resources may be available in local libraries.

Special Searches: Finding Your Registered Poem or Contest Winner

Poems Registered with the U.S. Copyright Office

If you registered your poem or poetry with the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress, you may be able to find a record for it online. Records for all works registered with the Copyright Office from 1978 to present can be found through its online copyright catalog. You can search by title, author, registration number, and keywords that appear in the record.

If you registered your poetry with the Copyright Office before 1978, the Copyright Office Web site includes information on how to locate your work.

For information on how to obtain a copy of your registered poem, see the Copyright Office's Circular 6, "Obtaining Access to and Copies of Copyright Records and Deposits."

Poems Submitted to Poetry Contests

The Library of Congress receives hundreds of requests each year from people searching for their poems. In most instances, these poems were submitted to a poetry contest and subsequently published in an amateur poetry anthology. For information on how to locate your contest poems, see Amateur Poetry Anthologies: A Guide to Finding Your Published Poems.


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  October 27, 2016
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