Finding the correct wording and exact source for quotations can be one of the most frustrating reference jobs. It seems that no matter how many compilations of quotations a library has (and large libraries have a good many) there are always a multitude of quotations which you just can't find. Some quotes are too obscure, some are too new, and very often patrons have so badly misquoted what they remember that you can't find what they need.

Two of the quotation handbooks most often found in libraries are John Bartlett's FAMILIAR QUOTATIONS and Burton Stevenson's HOME BOOK OF QUOTATIONS. They are both useful to have since there are significant differences between them. Stevenson's is larger and includes more quotations, but does not duplicate all the ones found in Bartlett's, so if you have them you will often need to check both sources.

Stevenson's is arranged by subject while Bartlett's is arranged by author. This is one of the most significant differences. If you need quotes on a particular topic, or don't know the author of your quote, it can often be easier to begin with Stevenson's. If you do know the author, it can be much faster to start with Bartlett's.

Both have good indexes done by key words and you should always check under more than one key word in case the patron has given you some words wrong in the quote. One thing to beware of in Stevenson's, however, is that when a key word of a quote is also a word used as a subject heading in the body of the work, the quote may not be in the index under that key word. For example, quotes given under the heading "Dollar" may not be in the index under "dollar."

People often remember the sense of a quotation and not the exact words. In fact, it's not uncommon for someone to remember every word of a quotation wrong, but still have the meaning right. How do you find a quote like that? There are a couple of ways to handle this. You can use a quotation dictionary with a subject arrangement like Stevenson's and scan the quotations on that subject looking for one which seems to say the same thing. You can also try to think of synonyms for key words in the quote and try the synonyms in the key word index of the book you are using.

Stevenson's has an index to authors in the back which also gives birth and death dates and occupations.

Bartlett's is also updated more frequently and is more likely to have recent quotations. Older editions of Bartlett's have quotes dropped from newer editions to make room for new material, so it may be worthwhile to check more than one edition.

Stevenson'sand Bartlett's are good examples of quotation dictionaries, but there are countless other good ones. You will often have to look in several different volumes in search of a quote since each one includes different items.

Complete the Quotation Practice Questions.

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This page was last updated on November 6, 2003.