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

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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9 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 10/12/14”

  1. Christine P. Says:

    Tineye.com is better for retrieving copies of a specific image and tracking the image’s usage, but image retrieval is still far from perfect. I did an assignment on it in my LIS program and even Google’s image search algorithm is largely based on composition and historgram rather than the specifics of a database with correct metadata. It can’t retrieve images in the same context, just the same shape and color.

  2. Mary Jo Says:

    I just did a Google reverse image search with a cropped image of your image focusing on the palm tree, and it came right up!

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Christine: I’ve used that site before, but sort of forgot about it and mostly use Google for image stuff – but, as you say, with mixed results. Unlike…

    @Mary Jo: amazing! So where were you when I needed you? But cropping is a good tip – next time I’ll try different “zoom levels” to really focus on the most identifiable part of the image.

  4. The Librarian With No Name Says:

    Once spent nearly an hour with an oddly persistent patron who wanted to identify an Asian bill he found in one of our books. Have you ever tried to go through the entire Asian section of the World Paper Money catalog? There’s a lot!

    We were saved when one of our library pages promptly identified it as joss paper, which is burned at traditional Chinese funerals. You may know it as “ghost money,” or, if you are old, “hell money.”

    Lesson: sometimes if you can’t find the answer, it’s because you’re asking the wrong question. Also, Chinese funerals sound pretty metal.

  5. Michelle Rorke Says:

    The question reminds me of an ER episode where a nurse is trying to do a Medline search….

    How are you on Medline searches? –
    I did one on submandibular paralysis and I came up with zilch.
    I’m not surprised. I’ve never heard of it.
    I’ve got this kid complaining of a numb chin.
    What should I do?
    Why don’t you try “numb chin”?
    “Numb chin.That sounds a little too, you know, easy.”
    There you go.

  6. Emma Says:

    This is very cool, and a lesson for us all, but I think the number in the circle is actually 50, not 25.

  7. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Emma: holy smokes, you’re right. I honestly didn’t even notice that – I only translated the dates on the front of the coin. Thank you for pointing that out – I didn’t even question that part of her note.

  8. Randy Robertshaw Says:

    Arabic numbers are used everywhere in the Gulf countries as well. As to the dating, the Islamic calendars come into play and how dates are recorded DD/MM/YYYY.

  9. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Randy: thanks Randy – it’s good to hear from you, and interesting to hear from a Middle East perspective. I hope all is well with you over there.