16 Using Google Books to Track Down Quotes

Mike Caulfield

Did Carl Sagan say this?

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Quotes are the internet are some of the most commonly faked content. People misattribute quotes to give them significance, or fabricate tendentious quotes to create controversy. (For some examples of fact-checking historical quotes, check out Quote Investigator).

In our case, if we know that Carl Sagan is an author of many books, rather than start in Google or DuckDuckGo‘s general search we might start in Google Books, which will likely get us to the source of the quote faster. Additionally, even if we cannot find the source, we might find a someone quoting this in a book from a major publisher, which is likely to have a more developed fact-checking process than some guy on Twitter.

So we go to Google Books and we pick out just a short snippet of unique phrasing. I’m going to choose “clutching  our crystals and nervously consulting.”

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Down there at the bottom, the fourth result, is a book by Carl Sagan. It says it’s from 2011, but don’t be fooled by this date; this is just the date of the edition indexed here. Let’s click through to the book to check the quote and sort out the date later.

Clicking through the book we find the quote is accurate. More importantly, we find the surrounding context and find that this quote is not being taken out of context. Sagan was truly worried about this issue. His prediction was very much that a sound bite obsessed media, combined with a sort of celebration of ignorance, would drag us backwards. He understood that the world was becoming more difficult while the communication of ideas was simultaneously becoming more shallow.

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You can find out the original publication date of this work a number of ways. There’s a “more versions” option on the Google Books interface. You could go look for the book’s article on Wikipedia, as they will usually give you the publication date. But the easiest way is usually to turn to the front pages of the book and find the date, just as you would with a physical book.

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Using Google Books to Track Down Quotes Copyright © 2019 by Mike Caulfield is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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