Tracking Down Errant References

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

Last month I spent a lot of time tracking down references in my dissertation. While I am usually good at keeping track of notes, page numbers, and original sources, when we are talking about multiple drafts of a 250+ page document there are bound to be some errors/typos and missing information which requires consulting the original source. While I imagine in the pre-internet era this was a laborious task, this is now relatively pain free process. So, here are ways to track down sources and quotations other than looking through every page of the original book.

  • Devon: My first recourse is always to search my own computer, for quite often I have the original article somewhere. Since I have all the relevant articles stored in Devon Think, I can just search there, but if you are not using one of these “brain in a box” programs, you can always try “spotlight” (on the Mac) or download and use Google Desktop.
  • Google: This is perhaps the fastest way, although not the most effective. Wondering were it was that Nietzsche said his works “jar on the ears”? Just do a google search for “jars on the ears” (uses the quotes) and Nietzsche, if you are lucky someone will have already cited it, including the page number. It pays at this point to go back and check the print copy as sometimes people incorrectly cite page numbers. But this trick gives you a good place to start. It works only occasionally, but because it is so fast I usually start here.
  • Amazon: This is probably the online tool I find most useful. Look up a book on Amazon, and if it has the “search inside this book” function you can actually search for the phrase you are trying to locate. Now, not every book on Amazon allows you to search inside, but for those that do this works. Note that even if you can’t see the actual page (Amazon prevents this for copyright reasons at times) you can still see the page number where the quote occurs, which allows you to again consult the print version. For example I had the following in my dissertation: “writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity, opening the psyche as never before” (Ong 140). Well I knew it wasn’t on page 140, so I looked it up on Amazon, clicked search inside this book, and typed in “articulate.” Amazon returns a list of the pages and surrounding words. Then, it is simply a matter of looking up the page number in the print copy to make sure that is the one I want. Amazonbooksearch.jpg

  • Google Books: This works like the above Amazon trick, but instead uses Google Books. I find this less effective than Amazon, but it tends to work for older books better than Amazon (I think this is a copyright issue), so it probably depends on your focus. From the Google Books page search for the author, title, or even phrase for which you are looking. (Note: This makes Google Books effective if you do not know the source of your quote.
  • Project Gutenberg: Project Gutenberg has over 20,000 books online, free available for download. These are all older books on which the copyright has expired, so the selection is limited in scope. But if you are searching for pre 20th century stuff this is a good bet. Download the book which contains the reference and then just do a simple text search within the document (usually “find” but depends on the program you are using). The problem here is that this often won’t give you page numbers, but it will give you chapter, or in the case of much older works like Plato, Aristotle etc., it will give you the line number, making it easy to find the page number in the print text. (Note: translations often vary here as these are the public domain works so sometimes it takes a bit of manipulation to find what you are looking for, and you might not want to rely on Gutenberg as a source, but it is a good place to get you started.)
  • The Open Library: Similar to Gutenberg and Google Books, the The Open Library allows you to search for and inside books. Personally I find the selection to be limited, but if you are having trouble this might do the trick.
  • Author Specific Sites: Many of the canonical authors have sites dedicated to their works that will allow you to search their complete works for a line of text or a reference. For example: The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Blake Archive, Emerson Central and others too numerous to list . . .

Other ways/internet tools? Leave suggestions in the comments