Quote Investigator to the Rescue!

At the end of last year, I received a Christmas card from a friend with this lovely quote attributed to the great writer and thinker, James Baldwin:

Fires can’t be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. Enthusiasm in our daily work lightens effort and turns even labor into pleasant tasks.

As is my practice with quotes that I like, I did a quick search to see if I could confirm the source, and I came up empty. I saw this quote attributed to Baldwin hundreds of times with nary a citation. I then checked Wikiquote, which is invaluable for rooting out misattributed quotes, but had no luck there either.

Usually, at this point, I assume that the quote is misattributed, and I stop looking. But just a few weeks earlier, my friend, Kate, who knows about my hangup with misattributed quotes, sent me a link to Garson O’Toole’s website, the “Quote Investigator,” who “diligently seeks the truth about quotations.” I loved his website, and while it looked like he received more requests than he could handle, I decided to ask him for help on a whim.

Over two months had passed, and I had long figured that he had been too busy to respond. Then, this morning, to my surprise, I received an email from him! He had researched my request and had published his answer! In short, Garson was unable to find any evidence that James Baldwin said it. However, Garson’s story of the trail he followed was just as interesting. I’d encourage folks to read the whole story.

The virality of today’s Internet tools has its costs, as we’re recognizing more and more these days. But these same tools offer ways to counter to these problems… should we decide to leverage them (as Mike Caulfield passionately reminds us to do). I’m grateful for folks like Garson, and I’m grateful that the Internet — along with a good dose of real-life social connections — enabled me to find him. Seeing his research made my morning!

Copyright and the Evolution and Availability of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Speeches

Last week, I wrote a blog post for Faster Than 20 where I quoted some lines from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1961 commencement speech at Lincoln University. I first heard this and many others last summer on Spotify, which has a comprehensive playlist of King’s speeches.

The Lincoln University one grabbed me the most, and when I decided to revisit it last week, I searched for a transcription and was surprised that I couldn’t find one. I found a few scanned versions, but no transcriptions.

At first, that made me wonder about the copyright status of his speeches. As suspected, the King estate keeps tight hold over who and how his speeches get shared (as is its right). For example, it gave an exclusive film license to DreamWorks for an upcoming Steven Spielberg biopic, which meant that Ava DuVernay had to paraphrase his speeches for her movie, Selma.

Because I couldn’t find an existing transcript, I went through the trouble of transcribing one of the scanned versions for my own use. I also wondered whether some choice quotes from that speech were available anywhere. If not, I figured I could contribute some.

His Wikiquote page did not reference this particular speech, but it already had several of the quotes I wanted to share. Many of them, for example, appeared in his 1965 sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Not surprisingly, King reused parts of many speeches. It was fascinating to see how some of them evolved over time. I also think it’s fascinating to wonder how certain speeches became more prominent and others did not. I think his Lincoln University speech, for example, is far more powerful than the version he gave four years later at Temple Israel of Hollywood, but the latter is much easier to find.

I think this is unfortunate, but I’m glad that audio recordings of that speech (which is the best way to enjoy his speeches anyway) are more readily available:

Photo by Dick DeMarsico / New York World Telegram & Sun (November 6, 1964). From Wikimedia Commons.

Emile Zola on Poetry and Craft, Nature vs Nurture

Viola Davis’s introduction of Meryl Streep for the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award last Sunday was a highlight in its entirety, as was Streep’s powerful acceptance speech. But one thing that stood out in particular for me was Davis quoting Émile Zola:

If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, I will answer you: I am here to live out loud!

Because I am anal, I double check quotes I like before I save them, and the best source for citations is often Wikiquote. While scanning Zola’s Wikiquote page and affirming that he did indeed say the above, I also ran across this quote that I love in a letter to Paul Cézanne in 1860:

There are two men inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.

On Sourcing Quotes and the Wikimedia Way

This morning, I came across this Charlie Parker quote that I really loved:

“Master your instrument, master the music, then forget all that bullshit and just play.”

My first instinct was to tweet it. My second, more practiced instinct, was to check the source first. It’s really not that hard to at least do a quick check, and I’ve discovered lots of misattributed quotes this way.

A quick search surfaced a bunch of unattributed variants on that quote, as well as this entry from Wikiquote:

“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” –As quoted in Acting Is a Job: Real-life Lessons About the Acting Business (2006) by Jason Pugatch, p. 73; this statement has occurred with many different phrasings, including: “Learn the changes, then forget them.”

A book on acting is not the most credible source, probably no better than the blog post above. But at least it’s the start of a trail, one that anyone can follow to the end, if they so desire.

The ethos of sourcing facts is theoretically easier in this connected age, but the reality is that our connectivity seems to discourage it. We read funny or provocative things that speak to us, we click once, and boom, we’ve instantaneously shared it with hundreds of our followers without giving any thought to whether or not it’s true. That’s a problem.

Furthermore, social media tools seem to be actively evolving to discourage sourcing. I was guilted into this practice of sourcing-before-sharing after reading a rant by Evan Prodromou, who pointed out that a quote that was being widely and rapidly shared was actually misattributed.

Here’s the problem: Even though he posted it publicly somewhere, I can’t find it. It’s not on his blog, and it’s not on Status.net (the company he founded, which very much values persistent data), although he alludes to the rant there. Which means that he posted it on Facebook or Google Plus, which means that I can just about forget about ever finding it, since neither of those services seem to care about making posts persistent and findable. (Read a similar criticism that Kellan Eliott-McCrea had about Twitter.) Which means that this knowledge trail, minor though it may be, has been unnecessarily broken.

This is yet another reason why I appreciate Wikimedia so much. There is a deeply embedded ethos in that community around sourcing truth. Sometimes, this ethos surfaces some quirky challenges around epistemology,  such as the recent Philip Roth affair, but even situations like these only serve to make us smarter and more self-aware.

The wiki tool enables this ethos to some extent, but the reality is that its source is cultural, not technical, and the community is trying to apply this ethos to all forms of knowledge, not just encyclopedic. No one else is doing this. That’s unfortunate, because we need a lot more of it.