Thursday, December 23, 2010

Answer: Finding a quotation... even when it's not quite right

Just so you don't think less of me, I actually knew it was an incorrect quotation, but I've heard it so often that I wanted to bring this up as a topic.  

As you can see from the comments, several people were able to solve this question fairly quickly.  But it's interesting to look at WHY they were able to do so.  

Hans found that this was a misquote and ended up at -- and he's absolutely correct.  The correct quote is The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley.--Robert Burns ("To a Mouse").  Fred and JPP also found this out, and give the entire stanza as: 

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Which gives a clear clue about why it's so misremembered--it's written in a Scots dialect which is, to say the least, not part of standard American English.  (See the Wikipedia article on "To a mouse" for a nice side-by-side translation.)  

We've talked about mondegreens and misquotes before (see blog post from March 20, 2010: "Quotes/ misquotes / mondegreens")  but I wanted to bring up another aspect of misquotation:  what do you do when you've got it all wrong?  

In this case, we're saved by the sheer number of people who misquote Burns.  Fred's path to the correct poem was by finding the phrase "of mice and men" being reused by Steinbeck, which then led him to Burns.  Luckily, SO many people make this error that there's an industry of Questions and Answers (QA) sites that points searchers rightly.  

A big part of every reference librarian's life is figuring out what the patron really means when they ask for something odd.  I've heard from librarians that people asking for titles like "Funny Farm," which they explain is a book about animals.  It's a leap to realize that this is actually a request for George Orwell's "Animal Farm," but that's what librarians do.

It's a skill worth developing for search as it often turns out that the most difficult searches are ones when the searcher is just SURE they know something to be true... that later turns out to be incorrect.  Recently I saw a searcher looking for a "Photoshop plug-in" that would do a particular transformation to their image.  It was a difficult search since they were trying to find a plug-in that would convert their line drawing from 2D to 3D.  In Photoshop this is hard, but in Adobe's Illustrator product it's pretty straightforward... and it makes the search MUCH easier.  Ultimately, we worked out that the much better search was [ Illustrator 3d plug-in ] and that having the word "Photoshop" was just throwing everything off (even though he was SURE it had to be in there).   

What's the moral here?  I see two general heuristics to keep in mind:  

1.  Be sure of your terms, and try to work around limiting terms.  In particular, a term like "Photoshop" is really, really limiting.  If you're not sure of the particular category, then consider backing off and trying another description of the concept--in this case, "Adobe" or "editor" is a better search term. 

2.  Describe more of your search intent (but keep it short!).  When looking for things like "Funny Farm" is might be good to include more terms that describe your intent (words like "book" or "totalitarianism" would be great).  

These are great rules of thumb to keep in mind when trying to find those elusive search results! 

Search on! 

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