or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk


Reference Question of the Week – 10/12/14

   October 18th, 2014 Brian Herzog

So this is an interesting question - and a situation where I got schooled in applying Occam's razor to research techniques.

A friend of mine at work had an unusual coin, and we wanted to find out what it was. It didn't have any English lettering on it, and no Arabic numbers, although it clearly looked like it was a coin from the Middle East or Asia, or maybe North Africa (however, the lack of Arabic numbers made me think it wasn't from an Arab country).

Mystery coin

This came up late on a Friday, so I never got a chance to search for what it was. Over the weekend though, I did think about different approaches I could use to identify it:

  • The failsafe always seemed to be just sitting down with our big world coin book, and going through it page by page looking for something similar
  • I also thought a reverse image search would work - take a picture of the coin, run it through Google, and it should easily bring back exact matches
  • Often when I'm trying to identify things, I type in whatever is written on them to match the exact phrase - since this coin isn't in English, I'd first have to install that font set and then hunt and peck until I found the right characters, and then search on the phrase or translate it

See, this is how a reference librarian approaches the problem (or at least, how I approached it).

When I got in a Monday, my coworker (who had worked Saturday) left a note on my desk identifying the coin as an Iraqi 25 Fils coin. Neat! So I asked her how she figured it out - hours pouring over the book? The reverse image search? She said,

No, I just searched for "palm tree coin" and it came right up.

Now that's how you research.

I honestly did feel a little dumb that searching like that didn't even occur to me - but I was able to redeem myself with dating it. It seemed like the coin had two dates written on it, which is odd to me, but also written in another language so I'd need to figure out how to translate them - which is also odd because I would have thought Iraq would use Arabic numbers. Also, being an Iraqi coin, I was curious if this was from the Saddam Hussein era or not.

Searching for "Iraq coin dates" brought up a website that explained that Iraq uses eastern Arabic numerals, and indeed two dating systems. One is the same modern years we use, and the other is

a Hejira date based on the lunar calendar and starting at the time Mohammed was alive (around 600 AD)

Using the translation table on the website,

Eastern Arabic numerals

I was able to work out this coin to be from 1990 / 1410. Saddam was President of Iraq from 1979 to 2003, so it was indeed a Saddam coin.

A couple other notes about this question:

  • I was curious to see how well the reverse image search would work, so I tried it anyway - and it failed miserably. It seemed like it searched for anything round and silvery, which is just about every other coin in the world. Maybe it's not sophisticated enough yet to search for the image on the coin, or maybe my picture just didn't highlight the detail enough
  • Maybe descriptive searches like "palm tree coin" don't occur to me because I'm so used to working with library catalogs. There really is no reason we shouldn't be able to search catalogs for "blue book with dog on cover," but since we can't I guess I don't think like that when approaching searches. It'd be a lot of effort to get that kind of metadata into library catalogs, but clearly crowdsourcing search data works for Google
  • I had never heard of Eastern Arabic numerals, so it was fun to learn about something new

I liked this question a lot - and it wasn't even from a real patron!



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Reference Question of the Week – 4/24/11

   April 30th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Silver Mercury DimeOne slow afternoon, and elderly woman called and asked,

Can you tell me how many silver dimes it takes to make an ounce of silver?

I said sure, and started an internet search. Initially I searched for "silver dimes in an ounce site:.gov" hoping that a Government site would have the most authoratative information on the different metal composition of different coins, and provide a nice chart to equate silver coins to pure silver ounce. But after skimming the first couple pages of results, I was getting nowhere fast.

I dropped the "site:.gov," which produced a ton of results - by comparing various answers, which were all roughly the same, I felt confident to give her the answer that it takes 14 dimes make an ounce of silver.

To this she said,

Thank you, that's wonderful. If it's not too much trouble, could you also tell me how many silver quarters make an ounce? You see, my husband always kept a jar of silver coins, and he told me never to touch them. He said the silver in them was worth more than the coins, so to never spend them. I heard that the price of silver is getting high now, and with my husband gone, I wanted to know if it was time to cash them in.

I ran the same search for quarters (6 quarters) and also for nickels (18 nickels - I did not know that nickels minted during WWII were made of silver).

While I was looking for these, the woman kept talking about her husband, and why he collected coins.

He always said that you can't lose with coins, because you have options. He said the value of the silver in them will always be the highest. But, there's also the value to coin collectors if you have something rare. And, if all else fails, at least you can still spend them as dimes and quarters. You can buy a block of silver, but you can't spend it at a store - at least you'll always be able to spend coins in a pinch.

This whole call had an air of sorrow to it, because I got the feeling that her husband had died awhile ago, and she had hung on to these coins with that memory of him. But with her investigating the value of the silver, it felt as if she was ready to cash out because she needed the money - and the thought of an elderly woman taking a mason jar full of her late husband's coin collection to a cash-for-gold place just made me sad.

But this cheered me up: she asked me to look up the current price of silver (about $48/ounce), then did some quick math and said,

Well, that's either $1.40 in dimes or $1.50 in quarters - I've got a lot more dimes anyway, so I'm going to turn in enough to buy myself something nice. This'll be the best $1.40 I ever spent.

Ha - that brightened my entire day.

After I hung up with her, I kept searching to see what else I could find. Coinflation.com offers some good tools - a handy listing of the face value and silver value of circulated coins (which also links to individual pages about each type of coin), and a silver coin calculator in which you enter the number of different types of coins and it tells you how much they are worth.

Some people might remember that one of my hobbies is metal detecting (fitting for a reference librarian, right?) - it turns out that the four Mercury dimes I've found are worth $13.87 in silver. Neat (but I'm keeping them).



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/10/10

   October 16th, 2010 Brian Herzog

This question was interesting, and in honor of the nature of this question, the alternate title for this post is "Reference Question of the Week - X/X/X."

One of my brothers came across some old Roman coins, and asked me if I could help identify them. The cleanest one he had looked like this (front and back):

Roman Coin

He had found out about a book called Eric: The Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins which should be a fairly comprehensive list, and wanted to know if my library had a copy. We don't, and according to WorldCat, it's not widely available at all. It is published by Dirty Old Books (which is the best possible name for a coin book publisher), and I found the full-text available as a PDF download [ZIP, 65MB!] from their website.

After it downloaded and I started flipping through it looking at the pictures, I was overwhelmed to see how many different Roman coins there were - but I guess that's what you get when you rule the earth for centuries.

So, I decided to try a different tactic. I went to Google Image search, and started searching on phrases that described the back of the coin - "roman coin two people tower," ancient coin two soldiers," etc. I started switching between both Images search and Web search, thinking the text descriptions in the Web search might give me more keywords, and that's exactly what happened with "coin soldiers standing tower."

On that search, the third return was titled Constantine, Roman Imperial Coins reference at WildWinds.com and had in the description "...two soldiers standing front, holding spears, heads turned inward at two standards between them..." which sounded promising. On that page I did a Ctrl+f for "two soldiers," and seemed to definitely be getting close. I also noticed that the words "GLORIA EXERCITVS" were printed on a lot of the coins. The writing on my brother's coin was too faint to read, but now that I knew what to look for, I could pick out the letters.

So I tried an image search for "GLORIA EXERCITVS" and hit the mother load.

Clicking on a few of those lead to http://www.romancoin.info which had a lot of information. I couldn't find the exact face on the front of the coin, but by scrolling down a bit, I found the exact coin back under the "Reverses" section of "Part 1 – The Era of Constantine the Great, his Sons and Rivals (320 – 337 A.D.)." So that seems to limit the coin's era and it also linked to a spreadsheet [XLS, 412KB] of all the coins that use that have that design on the reverse.

It didn't make much sense to me, but I sent all of this to my brother hoping that between the websites, spreadsheet, ERIC pdf and him using a magnifying glass to get more detail from the coin, he'd be able to identify it exactly.

But then again, narrowing it down to the reign of Constantine the Great might be enough. Unfortunately, it seems like these coins are fairly common and not very valuable. Still, pretty neat - I love my job.



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