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Quotes Uncovered: We Still Need Libraries!

I will pause in answering the large backlog of reader questions from several months ago to address a general comment just now made by Eric M. Jones, who has been making very interesting contributions to the discussion:

Okay, Fred; I too have been guilty of Googling. But I propose that the massive trove of Google Books and similar digitizations is the best way to discover the root of sayings. How else can one do it?-by searching manually? By asking ‘experts’? By checking other ‘authoritative’ sources? When Google has digitized all printed materials, we can toss out the authoratative references and begin again with REAL research. … My guess is that you have a book to defend. My hope is that you toss out all the earlier stuff and Google like mad for new answers.

My response, which I also posted as a comment, was:

My book does not need to be defended against a superior Google Books-searching alternative. First of all, I used Google Books extensively in researching my book. The Yale Book of Quotations was the first reference work to make extensive use of Google Books. Second, because Google Books has serious problems with the quality of its metadata, it is limited in its usefulness for this kind of research. There are other databases, such as ProQuest Historical Newspapers and Newspaperarchive, that may be more powerful than Google Books, and I used them a lot as well. There are also, believe it or not, nonelectronic methods that will often provide better information than Google will, and I used them too.

Google Books is a fantastic tool for historical research. Its coverage becomes more enormous every day. But to regard it as the be-all and end-all of research is a serious mistake, and to uncritically accept its metadata about dates and editions, or even to assume that the metadata hasn’t been linked to a completely irrelevant book, can lead to whoppingly wrong assertions about the origins of words or quotations. “Experts” in Google Books searching know that if a result is surprisingly early, the explanation may be that Google Books has erred in dating the book, or in some other way, and that it may be necessary to-gasp-look at the printed book in a research library to verify the result. Much of the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary is derived from the fact that they verify citations of word usage in the original printed books in research libraries.