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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I am a Statistic, by Demetri Martin

   June 28th, 2011 Brian Herzog

This is a Book coverA friend of mine is reading This is a Book, by Demetri Martin, and shared the passage below with me.

I know it's a humor book, but I found one of the comments only marginally funny. Well, not that it was unfunny, but moreso that I have just always sort of taken it for granted.

The line I'm talking about is the fourth one up from the bottom on the page below. As a friend of mine from college used to say, "I am the norm; everyone else is just a deviation from me."

Also, the boomerang one is funny.

page from This is a Book

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Library Quotes for National Library Week

   April 12th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Treasury of Presidental QuotationsIn honor of National Library Week, I pulled some library-related sentiments from Treasury Of Presidential Quotations, compiled by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger.

I don't think it's any coincidence that the quotes I liked the best are from Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy, nor that they still apply today.

On the Role of Libraries

Good libraries are as essential to an education and informed people as the school system itself. The library is not only the custodian of our cultural heritage but the key to progress and the advancement of knowledge. With increasing leisure its resources can enrich the quality of American life.

-John F. Kennedy, 1963

Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital.

-Thomas Jefferson, 1821

On the Running of Libraries

Libraries like all other institutions must grow and adapt to changing requirements and conditions. The rate of change in the world today and in our knowledge of it is incredibly fast. We cannot afford to let our libraries slip behind.

-John F. Kennedy, 1963

Nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small, circulating library in every county, to consist of a few well-chosen books, to be lent to the people of the county, under such regulations as would secure their safe return in due time.

-Thomas Jefferson, 1809

I found it interesting how different these two sets of quotes made these two Presidents sound. Kennedy's first quote is lofty and qualitative, describing the library's place in our society overall. And of course I like his second quote, laying out a general roadmap of continuous change for libraries, responding to the continuous change in our communities.

Jefferson's quotes are a little more grounded and quantitative, describing how libraries can help people - a library can help you get a job. And in the second quote, he describes the specific policies to run a library - which almost sounds like Jefferson would support DRM (except that libraries have been enforcing his suggestion for over a century without DRM).

Of course celebrating libraries during National Library Week is great, but I always have the tendency to look for mirrors to catch a reflection of how people outside the library world view libraries.

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The Best Weapons in the World

   July 29th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Add this to the list of great quotes about libraries:

Doctor Who Quote

Anyone know where this photo was taken? Thanks to Chris for sending me this, and the comments on Reddit are worth skimming.

I'm a nerd and did the research to figure out this quote came from the second season episode Tooth and Claw, in which a werewolf is sent to assassinate the Queen. Here's the quote in context:

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