A geeky desire to be accurate..

Sometimes I find that I annoy even myself with a tendency to direct excessive effort toward something that really isn't important to anyone. Occasionally that tendency arises in a desire to be accurate when attributing something to someone else.

I once read a textbook that contained information I wanted to cite in my dissertation. The text listed the source of the information as being an article in a supplement to a 1943 technical journal from Germany. In my geeky way, I felt that I should cite the article rather than the textbook and that I should actually see the article before citing it. Consider these three factors: (1) Nobody at all would care whether I had ever actually seen the original article. (2) I can't read German. (3) German technical articles from 1943 were not readily available in the U.S. (the war and all that) and many aren't archived in our libraries.

I spent a year trying to get a copy of that article (not full time I'm not that much of a geek) and employed the assistance of professional librarians experienced in such searches. It seems the U.S. government had reprinted this German journal, but not the supplements, and even the Library of Congress did not have the article I sought. When the librarians gave up, I wrote a letter to the publisher of the modern equivalent of the old journal. The result: in a few weeks I had an actual physical copy of a journal article that I couldn't read. One thing I could tell, though it wasn't the article that provided the information I wanted to use in the dissertation. The textbook had cited the wrong article! I still wonder whether the textbook author and publisher ever bothered to check citations. This incorrect article did provide me a lead, however, and I found the true source article just a few days later on my own campus. At least that portion of my dissertation was accurate.

I experienced a similar but briefer frustration trying to find the correct text for the poem I recalled from the sixth grade. I could remember maybe four or five lines inaccurately but had no idea about the title or author. Fortunately, today we have the information superhighway and can perform searches using more engines than are ever seen on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I performed a search on the phrases I could remember and got numerous hits. I quickly learned that the poem was The Winds of Fate by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Probably half a dozen web pages presented the poem in its entirety.

Unfortunately, these web sites presented quite a collection of different versions of the poem. Each one got the gist right, but it appears that my desire to be accurate is not a widespread characteristic on the web. So much for the validity of information strewn about on the superhighway. Eventually, with the help once again from a librarian, I found the American Poetry Database, one of the Chadwyck-Healy databases (http://liontwo.chadwyck.com) which are offered under subscription and are available through many libraries. I think this source is reliable, and I have presented the version of Ms. Wilcox's poem that is archived there.

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