Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Are You Being Thorough and Accurate?

Details matter. There are many skills associated with genealogical research, but the most important are being thorough and accurate. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reportedly wrote, "It takes less time to do a thing right than to explain why you did it wrong." Now, I could just quote Longfellow and leave it at that. But how do you know that this statement really originated with the poet, Longfellow? I would also question the validity of the statement. Sometimes, doing something right takes a considerable time and effort. How would you go about researching whether or not Longfellow really originated this quote and if this is what he actually said?

Of course, I started with a Google search. But my initial efforts merely produced a multitude of copies of the same statement with no references. Does this sound familiar in genealogical research? I have often found that commonly quoted sayings are either wrongly attributed or misquoted from the original. After spending some initial time searching for the original source of the quote, I became intrigued with the quote and its origin. At this point, it began to look more and more like entries in online family trees that simply copied over and over the information about an ancestor without a citation to the original. I found hundreds of copies of the quote and still no attribution to the original source.

At this point, I began to question both the author and accuracy of the quote. The longer I spent looking for the actual source, the more convinced I became that the quote was likely not accurately reported. Most of the websites were nothing more than lists of quotes with a supposed name of the author. I finally began to get into academic use of the quote, but still no one seemed to know where the original was located. I began to be somewhat amazed at the fact that this quote was so commonly attributed to Longfellow without anyone having bothered to verify the origin or give a citation to the original.

As I went through more and more pages of quotes on Google, I decided I had to devise a different strategy. I added some search terms, such as, "source" and "original." Up to this point, I had been searching on the entire quote in quotation marks. That didn't seem to help, so I moved to searching in Google Books directly. By adding those qualifiers, plus adding the word, "Longfellow," I still had over 258,000 results.

More search with multiple terms still produced no information on the origin of the saying. Everyone seems to love the saying but no one seems to challenge the assumption. It looks like to me that none of the people using the quote followed its advice. Again, this was sounding very much like what was happening too often in genealogy.

Then I began searching for the quote directly in books authored by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Still no luck even when I was search books containing his "complete works." I finally ended up on the Internet Archive ( searching books both by Longfellow and about him. I finally ended up searching the following:

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, and Andrew R Hilen. The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967.

This book has six volumes. The quote is not in this book. I also discovered the Harvard University collection of

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, 1807-1882, recipient. Letters to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1761-1904: Guide. 36 linear feet in 73 boxes. 

I was beginning to conclude that the quote was spurious. Well, I ran out of time and patience to verify this quote, but I can certainly say that it does in fact take more time to do something wrong than it does to do it right. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a lot, but it appears that he didn't write the quote I started with.

Now, perhaps you can see the analogy here. Genealogy is much like this supposed quote from Longfellow. It should have taken me just a few minutes, not over an hour, of searching to find the origin of the quote. The fact that it took me longer than a few minutes indicates that the quote is either wrongly attributed or bogus. We need to be very careful when we copy something that appears to be "well accepted" and accurate. We need to question everything.


  1. James, I enjoyed your exercise. You could spend a few days trying to get the quoters to come up with a source. If it turns out that there really is no "original" source for the purported quotation, I wonder if any of the quoters would explain how they came to enter it in whatever their venues were.

  2. Have you checked Bartlett's Familiar Quotations to see if if they include the quote? If they do, this source will provide an attribution. It is the standard reference work that librarians use to research this type of question. BYU certainly has it (because I used it there when I was earning my Masters degree in Library and Information Sciences).

    Wikipedia has background information about the various editions of Bartletts over the years.

    1. I will check it out at the BYU Library. Meanwhile, there are over 2,000 instances of this quote online in a Google search, I did not look at every one, but none of them seem to have a citation to the original source.