Research

“Where do you get your quotes?”

… I am often asked.

Actually, quotations are all around us — in the books we read, the web pages we browse, etc.  The trick is not so much where you can get your quotes but where you can research them to (a) find citations, and (b) verify they are real.

Citations are important because …

  1. So many quotations out there are misstated, misattributed, or just out-and-out fabrications. Franklin, Twain, Lincoln, Churchill, Einstein, and others have been magnets for “Hey, that sounds good, let’s put it in the mouth of someone whom everyone admires” errors over the years. A quotation without citation should always be questioned, even if “everyone” quotes it; any quotation site (or book) that doesn’t provide citations should be considered of dubious value.
  2. Citations can give context as to the period in the author’s life to which the sentiment pertained. The John Adams of the Revolutionary period had some very different ideas than the John Adams at the end of his long life.
  3. They can give context for the quotation itself. More than once I’ve actually found the original of a quotation and discovered the context either gave a very different feel to the sentiment, or sometimes turned the message completely around.  Sometimes citations even make it clear the person was quoting someone else!

As a general rule, I would warn you to beware a lack of citations. There are a lot of quotation sites out there, many of them with slick interfaces, and the vast majority just scrape content from one another without any ownership, effort, validation, or, sometimes, spell-checking. For myself, wherever possible, I try to give a citation, a source reference, for the quotation — not something that would necessarily stand up as an actual footnotes, but enough to help someone find the original material. If I have an online primary source, I’ll provide Source link as well. Anything that I can’t find a trustworthy or primary source for, I note as “(Attributed)”.

Key sites I use for research

  • WikiQuote is by far one of the most outstanding sources on the Internet for quotation research.  Massive and crowd-sourced, you can find a heck of a lot there. Because it is crowd-sourced, sometimes the formatting, completeness, and even accuracy of the information can be sketchy. Trust but (if you can), verify. Wikipedia also can be of assistance here, especially in further research about authors.
  • Google is, of course, the researcher’s friend.  The problem with Google and quotations is that a lot of quotes are on popular sites and have no citations with them, making a lot of noise to mask the signal.  A great way to refine the research is through Google Books (change the search over to the Books tab) — this gets you access both to some books of quotations and, more importantly, to a heck of a lot of primary material.
  • The Internet Archive has consolidated many free scans of older works from around the Internet, but has also brought in many scans of of commercially available and copyrighted text. Though it’s set up as a virtual library (check-outs controlling access), there have been some very fierce IP challenges. I still find it a way to confirm text in a more reliable and thorough way than Google Books allows.
  • WikiSource and Project Gutenberg have fantastic collections of older books and documents, hand transcribed from page images to text and HTML. Given a choice, I will take something in open, clear HTML than a Google Book or Internet Archive scan image.
  • HathiTrust‘s collection is more limited than some of the above, but their museums and academic institutions often have scans of antique books that can’t be found elsewhere.

Supporting Inspiration

  • IMDB (the Internet Movie Database) has extensive quotation collections from movies and TV.  It’s crowd-sourced, though, and the quotation quality is sometimes dependent on the memories or transcription skills of the contributors (a single movie will often have multiple versions of the same quote listed).
  • The same can be said of Goodreads — a good place to look for things initially (“Show me some quotes by X”), but not a reliable source for citations; anything found there should be independently verified.
  • Dr. Mardy’s Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations is fun just to graze through, but Mardy provides good sourcing for a lot of his work (almost always including titles, and often including links to sources).

Researchers

  • The Quote Investigator does excellent research into the sourcing of common but poorly cited quotations.  It’s worth a daily read whether you are actively working on quotations or not.
  • One of QI’s research sources is Barry Popik’s Big Apple blog, which  does a lot of research into quotations, among other literary items.

If you have other recommendations, in any category, please leave a comment. Thanks!

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Added on 30-Jun-13 | Last updated 12-Oct-22
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3 thoughts on “Research”

  1. I have been watching a TV series called City On A Hill, where the principal star rather than directly answering questions, he says quotations and cites correctly. It led me to this site. I look forward to exploring and learning more here as I love quotations. They add context and clarity to real life and in TV/movie scenes.
    Is Bartlett’s Quotations an accurate source material for you as well as me. Thanks.
    Ike

    1. I mean, Bartlett’s is better than nothing, or a generic quotations website, but I would rather use Bartlett’s as a first step and find the primary material that it references than just use it as a citation alone.

      1. I appreciate the prompt and educative reply. I am enjoying your app. The investigation and integrity to accurately cite quotations is commendable. Thanks and take care.
        Mike

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