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

Reference Question of the Week – 12/2/12

   December 8th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Plato Statue, Athens Academy, Athens, GreeceIf this question were a tweet, the hashtags could be #bestguess or #thisiswhycitationsareimportant.

A patron walked up to the desk and asked if I could help find the source of a quote. She slid me a small piece of paper with this written on it:

The punishment which the wise suffer who refuse to take part in the government, is to live under the government of worse men.


My favorite quote resource is Bartlett's (I still like print resources - sue me) but it wasn't in there - not under government, punishment, wise, or Plato. I checked a few other large quote dictionaries we had on the shelf, but still no luck.

So I turn to the internet, and am able to find the quote mentioned in plenty of places - but they just attribute it to Plato, without citing where in Plato's work this quote appears.

Until I find the quote on PoemHunter.com, which gives a citation of

Plato (428-347 B.C.), Greek philosopher. Quoted in Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Eloquence," Society and Solitude (1870).

Emerson's Eloquence wasn't hard to find - one place is in the Google Books copy of The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Society and solitude. I scrolled in to where Eloquence started and then skimmed until I found:

And the footnote is:

From there, I merrily skipped on over to Google Books' The Republic, and did a series of searches for "punishment," "government," "wise," and "suffer" - but didn't find the quote.

From the context, I really couldn't tell if Emerson was directly quoting Plato, or just paraphrasing his sentiments from Republic. Since the search didn't turn up the quote though, I'm leaning towards paraphrasing.

I brought everything over to the patron, and let her know what I found. I offered to get a copy of Republic for her, in case she wanted to read it herself more thoroughly to find the quote, but she declined. She thought the Emerson source was good enough for her need, and was happy.

I have to admit, this is one of my favorite kind of research - where one resource leads to another, and along the way you uncover bits and pieces you wouldn't have expected. You'd think that with having resources like Google Books online, more and more people would be doing this sort of thing. However, I have the feeling that most people stop after the first website or two. Oh well - just more fun for reference librarians.

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Hi, I’m Google. And I’m a Librarian.

   August 25th, 2011 Brian Herzog

This photo (of the carpet at the Gungahlin Public Library in Canberra, Australia) has been making the rounds, but succinctly sums up why librarians aren't going anywhere:

Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one. Neil Gaiman

Thanks Chris.

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Reference Question of the Week – 7/24/11

   July 30th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Taxation without Representation in DC parade signA patron actually asked this question a couple weeks ago, but it's still quite timely. Also, it's a good example of two things: one, of someone asking a question expecting one answer but the actual answer being something different, and two, of being one of the most frustrating kinds of questions.

A patron walked up to the desk and said,

All this talk about raising the debt ceiling, and the idea of raising taxes instead of cutting spending, sounds like "no taxation without representation" to me. That was the battle cry of the Revolution - who was it that first said it?

It seemed like a fairly straight-forward question. I pulled our Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (17 ed.), and looking under "tax" in the index produced an entry for "Taxation without representation" on page 340. Sounds good.

That entry was attributed to James Otis in 1763, and read,

Taxation without representation is tyranny.

But there was a footnote:

This maxim was the guide and watchword of all the friends of liberty. Otis actually said: No parts of His Majesty's dominion can be taxed without their consent. -- Otis, "Rights of the Colonists" [1764], p .64

Since that was not the exact answer the patron was looking for, I tried searching online for who said "no taxation without representation" (with apprehension, I should say, because an internet search like this can often be less than definitive).

The first result was a Wikipedia article on the phrase, which credited Reverend Jonathan Mayhew in a sermon in Boston in 1750, but gave no citation. In the hopes of finding a transcript of that sermon, I tried searching for his name and the phrase, and found a series of interesting posts on the topic from the Boston 1775 blog:

The first one links to the text of a 1750 sermon (pdf) that carries the sentiment of the phrase, but not the phrase itself.

The blog posts, and most other sources I could find, went on to say that this sentiment had been around for decades, if not a century, and shared by the people of Ireland, England, and France against their respective governments. The American Colonists of the time we just the next group of disaffected citizens to adopt it.

Various sources cited that, while the phrase was in use in Boston by 1765, there is no clear record of who originally put those words in that order.

The patron was not pleased with this, but was getting antsy with the search process. I think what she was expecting was a very definitive "on this day, this American patriot said these words and this is why we are a great nation today," so all the maybes and ifs we found were disappointing - especially the references to this sentiment being embraced by the English and French before us.

In the end, she decided that attributing it to James Otis was most plausible - not only was he a patriot in the right time period, but he was also cited in Bartlett's, which was the most authoritative source we found.

I felt bad for not being able to find a better answer, and that's what frustrated me about questions like this - it's entirely possible that there isn't a better answer. I feel like there must be, and I have spent a little time since looking, but haven't found it yet.

Although, this does remind me of something a tour guide once said, about not having definitive answers to questions of history: "if a historical tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to write it down, did it really fall?" Of course. But now with cell phone cameras everywhere, "reality without record" might be a thing of the past.

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Librarian Book Quote

   August 11th, 2009 Brian Herzog

The Puzzling World of Winston BreenI like recording book quotes about librarians, and found a good one while reading The Puzzling World of Winston Breen.

The book is about a kid who loves puzzles, and gets caught up in a real life treasure hunt. The moral of the book is that there are different kinds of people in the world, who may not always be what they seem, and it's important to be able to work collaboratively to get things done. However, during the story the main character reflects,

If anything could dampen the excitement of going on a treasure hunt, it was having to do it with the town librarian...

The librarian in the book is a minor hero in her own right, so I'll let it slide. But come on, I like treasure hunts. We're not that uninteresting.

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Quotes About Libraries

   July 31st, 2008 Brian Herzog

J.F.K. library quoteIn the course of working on a project to promote my library, I have been looking for quotes about libraries.

I guess I took for granted that it'd be easy to find really positive quotes, about why libraries are important, how people benefit from using their library, etc. And it was, but what surprised me were a few not-so-positive library quotes.

The first resources I checked were our various quotation books. One of them, The Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations, had four library-related quotes, and they all were less-than-glowing:

People who want to understand democracy should spend less time in the library with Aristotle and more time on the buses and in the subway.
-Simeon Strunsky

If you file your waste-paper basket for 50 years, you have a public library.
-Tony Benn

A library is thought in cold storage.
-Lord Samuel

There is nowhere in the world were sleep is so deep as in the libraries of the House of Commons.
-Henry "Chips" Channon

Not that my frail ego was shattered by this discovery, but it was surprising. There's a lot of cheerleading that goes on within librarianship (such as American Libraries' "How the World See Us" section), and I guess I've been so insulated by this that anything to the contrary was shocking.

But after the initial shock wore off, I could see the humor (and accuracy) in them, too.

And in case you're looking for more quotes, here's a few websites with library-related quotations:

Certainly not an exhaustive list, but they have a lot to pick from. I think my favorite of the moment is:

A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.
- Jo Godwin

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