Thursday, June 13, 2013

Answer: Who came up with this big idea?


This blogpost is a little like life.

What started as a subtle error has turned into a teaching moment!

The error I made in the original question was to ask: 
1.  His poetry tells us that life is just a little of the good and of the bad, but he dreamed big and is credited with the idea of creating a well-known national landmark.  What is his name? 
But as several readers noticed—the quote was actually written by someone else, who did NOT create a nationally known landmark, but was merely associated with the person we’re really looking seeking by being quoted in an article by the person we seek.  

Teachable moment:  This kind of error happens all the time in real search tasks.  An incredibly valuable thing to know is how to overcome this kind of error. 

I’m not sure if this kind of error has a given name or not (if you know of one—let me know!), but for our purposes, let’s call it the problem statement error (shorthand:  PSE). 

PSEs happens all the time at library reference desks.  A patron will come up to the desk and ask a reasonable sounding question:  “Where can I find the novel ‘War & Peaches’?”  Good question, but you know they’re looking for ‘War & Peace.’  That’s a PSE. 

Or that old canard, "How many pairs of animals did Moses take with him into the ark?"  Correct answer?  None.  Moses didn't go in the ark...

More seriously, someone will want to know when Hemingway wrote that article about a “crap detector” in Harper’s Magazine.  Again, a good question, but the article in question was never published in Harper’s—it was the Atlantic Magazine (August, 1965).  

Again, that’s a PSE.  It's often a small mistake in the attribution that will send the searcher down the wrong path.  

A PSE is a problem that has a twist in it, a little like a mystery, that you, the researcher, has to untwist in order to solve. 

In OUR case, if you search for:

["life is just a little of the good and of the bad"]

You can find it referred to in a few places.  Perhaps the simplest is in the USGenWeb archives site.  

This is a text about a man by the name of Doane Robinson from the Book " Who's who in South Dakota"  by O. W. Coursey (1913).  

Follow that up with the obvious search:  

 [doane robinson]

Leads you to the Wikipedia article about Doane Robinson, along with other articles, such as the PBS story about Robinson and several others.  

You quickly learn that Robinson was the man who came up with the original idea for Mt. Rushmore.  He got the ball rolling on creating this giant set of statues in South Dakota.  

Quick answers: 

1. The quoted poetry, “life is just a little of the good and of the bad” isn’t actually by Doane Robinson, but HE is the man who dreamed big and receives the credit for coming up with the idea of creating a monumental sculpture in South Dakota.  His name?  Doane Robinson.

2. Once you've figured out who had this big idea, the landmark we see today is not what he originally envisioned. What was his original plan for the national landmark?  A:  In 1923, Doane Robinson wanted the faces of George Armstrong Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, Lewis and Clark, and Sioux warriors. His original idea was to carve them in a region called the Needles, but Gustav Borglum, the sculptor, decided they were too thin and difficult to carve.  They moved the project to Mount Rushmore. 


…as several sharp-eyed readers pointed out, that fragment of a poem is ACTUALLY by someone else.

In the text above, the poem is credited to Frank W. Taylor, Jr.  (1909)   See  

The front page contains a poem titled "Dipped from the Stream" authored by Frank W. Taylor Jr. The last lines of the poem are "That life is just a little/Of the good and of the bad.” 

That’s the poem quoted in the article about Doane Robinson.  And that’s the source of the PSE.  Robinson didn’t write the poem, but it was quoted in the article about him.  

Regular reader PASSAGE complained, “Not Fair!”  And I understand… a little. 

But this is the way real research works, and this kind of thing happens ALL the time at library reference desks.  It’s often the result of following along on strange pathways to get where you need to go. 

Search lessons:  There are actually several here.  

A.  Use double quotes when searching for a sequence of common words.  (Example:  "life is just a little of the good and of the bad" -- all common words made interesting only by their sequence.)  

B.  Read the surrounding context carefully!  I misread the appearance of the quotation as being written by Robinson.  Not so!  The article about Robinson merely quotes Taylor's original poem.  

C.  Be ever suspicious about the problem that are given to you.  Often they are more subtle (and involved) than you might expect.  Beware the Problem Statement Error!! 

And so, as ever... we go... 

Searching on! 

(If you know a better phrase that "Problem Statement Error," let me know!)  


  1. This took me down the rabbit hole to search [ term for "asking the wrong question" ]

    to this

    and that took me to "Wicked Problem"

    I then restated my search as [ questioning errors ] and found that there is quite a bit about asking the wrong questions with regards to research and surveys like this:

    "The right answer for the wrong question: consequences of type III error for public health research."

    Not a real answer to a better way to say "Problem Statement Error" but I found it interesting. :-)

  2. interesting Mr. Delventhal, using an answer as a query leap point.
    the problem with acronyms:
    maybe one could describe it as NSAed -
    ordered letters
    it all becomes FUBAR (not FOOBAR) and I'm left wondering if a PSE is a good and/or bad thing… maybe the issue isn't asking the "wrong" or "right" question, but asking the question at all.
    DBE - Buchheit or Patel…
    Thanks Dan.

    1. a tie in - not just to forming questions, but the crowd sourcing challenge from last week.
      does this mean an Irish challenge question is in the offing - 07/08?

    2. Ok Remmij I have to ask how did you find the SIGIR and have you got some insight to the delegates? Funny I thought you had special powers based on one of my proposals.

    3. no special powers, the conference site seems popular - not a delegate, but worthy of search - happening the 17th:
      Book of Kells (Book of Columba)
      Kells visitors
      almost like being there, instead of Berlin

  3. Not really a better phrase than "problem statement error," but a philosophical approach promulgated by the librarians in the Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movie "Desk Set" --"Never assume".

    An excellent motto!