The Answer, or what to do when Google doesn’t give it up easily

Ding, ding, ding… We have a winner! Our exercise in crowd-sourcing research questions was a success, and all the antiquarian glory goes to peterme for solving the reference mystery posed in our earlier post. The correct book our reader was looking for was (drum-roll please) “The Way Our People Lived: an Intimate American History,” by W.E. Woodward. wayourpeoplelivedThank you to all who participated. You came up with great suggestions for further reading which I will forward to the reader who posed the question.

Personally, I was able to identify our mystery book through a Google Book search (so I knew I wasn’t sending you all on a wild goose chase), but trust me, the search was not an easy one! No matter what they say about online access, it still requires a lot of work to figure out the right questions to ask. If you’re sick of the Google bashing or if you think Google marks the end of civilized scholarly research (since we all know those are the only two options), then you may enjoy a recent exchange on the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship and Publishing) listserv titled: “Do you use google books?“. You’ll find some great comments from scholars trained to think about book history and reading technology in intelligent ways.

Our new honorary antiquarian, peterme, describes his research process in his comments, but to give you the highlights: “in terms of finding it, Google was useless.” He went straight to his library’s catalog (yeah!) and was able to find the correct title. Check out our posts on “Anatomy of a Cataloging Record” or “The Embezzler Redeemed, Part I, Part II, or Part III” to see just how much behind-the-scenes work it takes from our catalogers to make the right titles show up in your searches. After peterme found what he thought was the right title, he continues: “I then googled that title, and found it was in the internet archive. I then searched the book to find that passage” i.e., the quote about the drinking babies. In case you want to check it out for yourself it’s on p. 40: “Babies were given beer and cider as soon as they were old enough to toddle.” So Google played an axillary role in his search strategy.

My own solution began with Google, starting with an “Advanced Book Search,” a feature I was unaware even existed until I was forced to resort to it in this desperate search. In the title line I put in the keywords “American” AND “Lived” (after playing around with a few different variations). I also set the date limit to between 1940 and 1990, assuming that while it certainly had to be published before our reader found it in the bookstore, it may have been older than he thought or have been republished. Turns out the book was originally published in 1944, which certainly threw me off a bit and perhaps some of you too, but it was republished just about every decade so our reader probably found a later republication in that bookshop in the 1980s.

no_cover_thumbThe right title showed up, but I got that frustrating blank book cover Google teases you with when it has “no preview available.” (Although, you’ll notice Internet Archive does does have the full text available.) Fortunately, there was a link from JSTOR to a review in The American Historical Review (Oct. 1944), which summed up the book thus: “All in all, the book is a potpourri of every variety of odds and ends of information gleaned along American folkways” (p. 145). Everything was sounding good, so with my heart in my throat I checked AAS’s catalog, discovered we had a copy, and when I pulled it from our stacks my heart was strangely warmed to discover I had the right book in my hands! I confirmed this with our reader and he is happily searching out a used copy of his own.

All this research talk leads me to ask a slightly twisted version of the question from the SHARP list-serv: “How do you use google books?” Please reply with your own research tricks and go-to alternative research sites (Internet Archive is one of our favorites), horror stories and triumphs. If you’ve solved a similar research mystery of your own, how did you do it? Let’s make “crowd-researching” the next hot trend.

Please join me in congratulating peterme for his perspicacity, and if anyone wants to give him a run for his money, maybe you can help me find a book another reader asked about that’s way beyond our scope at AAS? The clues I’ve been given are that it’s called “The Emperor” and it’s about how Japanese emperors are raised from early childhood. Happy hunting!

One thought on “The Answer, or what to do when Google doesn’t give it up easily

  1. Pingback: The Question: See if YOU can solve this reference mystery « PastIsPresent.org

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