Can’t Confirm That Quotation? Search Google Books

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Dear Savvy Searcher,

“We have hit a stumper. A colleague is looking for confirmation that Maya Angelou said the following (along with where and when):

‘We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.’

We have looked widely and been unable to confirm the attribution. Everyone on the web seems to agree that she said it but no one attributes it with a citation of any sort.

Thanks! I hope y’all can help. We are stymied.”

Joy Millam
Teacher Librarian
(Reprinted with author permission from the LM_Net Archive, answer posted here)

Dear Joy,

Google Books can help with this. What’s needed is the information that appears in a citation: the author, place, and date of publication. Luckily, traditional print materials (in the form of books) often include the kind of citation information you might need and Google Books allow you to search the full text of books.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Go to books.google.com
  2. Search for: Maya Angelou “We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color”. (Generally, I advise against typing in a whole quote. As we will see shortly, I would have done better to use fewer words, as suggested in the recent post on picking good search terms.)
  3. Notice that many books simply print the quote and credit Angelou, but a few, such as Jay Phelan’s What Is Life?: A Guide to Biology w/Prep-U and Myron W. Lustig and Jolene Koester’s Intercultural Competence, agree on a source: Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (New York: Random House Inc., 1993) 124.
  4. Within Google Books, search for Wouldn’t Take Nothing “diversity makes for a rich tapestry.”

This is where the search gets tricky. Why did the book itself not come up in the original Google Books results? From experience, I know that famous quotes and other texts tend to change as they spread. As Dan Russell wrote in his SearchReSearch post about misquoting:

“Misquotation and missed attributions happen all the time. ALL the time. Even people you think would get it right–say, JFK, who was a prolific re-quoter of others and had a speech-writing staff to boot–often got the attributions wrong.”

When verifying a quote, you should not assume that you have the saying verbatim–you never know what words have been added or subtracted by someone along the way. Once again, the best practice is to pick out the key words that best define what you seek. Google ranks results, in part, by whether your search terms are close to each other, and in the same order, on a page. So, when trying to locate a specific passage, it works best to pick a phrase rather than individual words.

I look for a combination that I don’t imagine would appear any place but in the item I want to find. For example, I pick the start of the book title (Wouldn’t Take Nothing) and a unique and striking string of words from the quote (“diversity makes for a rich tapestry”). When I locate the book, click through to the profile page, and use the ‘Search in this book’ box in the left-hand column, I again enter the unique portion of the quote:
Not only do I find the saying in question, but I discover that the version I started with, while widely quoted, included an extra word: along the way, someone had added the “what” in “no matter what their color.”

As it turns out, that one little word slowed me down. Had I simply started with Maya Angelou diversity makes for a rich tapestry, I would have found her book directly. But, since I used a quote that had words she didn’t use, and put quotation marks around it to require a precise match, Maya Angelou’s book didn’t appear as a result.

Despite this misstep, end-to-end, it has taken less than two minutes to locate and verify the source of the quote.

The primary tactic I used here is called scoping. Scoping is when you limit the sources you’re searching to a set of a particular kind. Google Books, Google News, Google Images, and Google Scholar are examples of ways to scope within Google. Or, if you want primary sources on Abraham Lincoln, using a search like [site:loc.gov lincoln] to limit results to pages from the Library of Congress’ website is another type of scoping.

The power of scoping is one of the reasons Google Books is so efficient. I recommend Google Books in a wide variety of circumstances — for example:

Accessing historical gems

Building understanding of more obscure, academic topics:

  • Someone on Google+ asked for “…examples of the medieval motif of dancers trapped/stuck in a dance together.” I had no name for this motif by which to look it up, and no idea what the question even meant until I found scholarly sources discussing an example which then, with help from a blog post, led to more examples, also from Google Books.

Previewing books to assure they’re a good fit to a student’s reading level before requesting them from another library:

  • A student interested in Rube Goldberg’s comic criticisms of the mechanical age was interested in reading Michael North’s Machine-Age Comedy, but found from the preview that the reading level was not a good match for her needs. This kept her from stalling on her homework for several days while waiting for the book to arrive from the library, and encouraged her to check out a different book, instead.

Locating or verifying books, stories, and essays:

  • Prove that a piece about a Jewish tradition around first menstruation, entitled “The Slap,” has actually been published somewhere.

In some of these cases, some fancy searching was involved (stay tuned for more about locating gun-runners, witches, and hippies another day). In most of these cases, however, a very straightforward Google Books search, such as typing the title of the book or story into the basic Google Books search box, uncovered the hoped-for source instantly.

The takeaway: if you want information about something that originally appeared in print, remember to try Google Books.

Have something you read once upon a time and would like to locate again? Give Google Books a try!

Have a question for The Savvy Searcher? Contact Tasha and check out the Search Education Team’s resources. Read more from The Savvy Searcher.

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