How to Research a Quotation

By Sharon Rickson
November 22, 2013
'Il ya des rivières ...' (quotation from Balzac?) -- Anne Barwell., Digital ID 480116, New York Public Library

'Il ya des rivières ...' (quotation from Balzac?) -- Anne Barwell., Digital ID 480116, New York Public Library

Researching a quotation can be fun, but it's not always easy and many times may require some serious digging.

There are quotes that no matter how hard we try, no author can be determined nor a source found. There are also quotes that have been attributed to so many authors that it is almost impossible to ascertain who actually said it first. Many quotes, especially famous quotes, are often misquoted by speakers, politicians, and the media which sometimes makes it much more difficult to identify an author and or a source. Some quotes are also not quotes at all, but proverbs or idioms.

The first thing to do when trying to identify a quote is to try to remember as much as possible about the wording of the quote. Many quotes are actually misquoted and deviate from the original quote. Therefore, when searching for a quote, try using keywords or try searching for the general idea of a quote especially if you are unsure of wording. Also try searching by the author if you don't have the wording correct but know the author.

This post can serve as a useful starting point for anyone seeking to research a quotation or find the source of a quotation.

E-books and Databases

Oxford Reference Online

Contains 2012 editions of the following books online, and is accessible with your library card number. Start with a keyword search for your quotation, then narrow the results under "By Reference Type" to "Quotations."

Credo Reference

Contains the following books online, and is accessible with your library card number. Start with a keyword search for your quotation, then narrow the results under "Subject" to "quotations."

Quotation E-Books

We have individual quotation books in electronic format, covering many different public personalities and themes such as Abraham Lincoln, weddings, and things you should never do. You can check them out with a library card and read them on any device.

On the Web

Wikiquote is a free online compendium of sourced quotations from notable people and creative works in every language, translations of non-English quotes, and links to Wikipedia for further information. Wikiquote is a great starting point for a quotation search. Only quotes with sourced citations can be included. It also includes frequent misquotes and their possible origins.

Wiktionary: Proverbs by Language
Browse proverbs in 59 languages.

Wiktionary: English Proverbs
English phrases popularly known as representations of common sense. Quotations
Contains a dozen public domain quotation reference books (pre-1923) including Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

IMDb Title and Name Text Searches
Search movie and television quotes in the Internet Movie Database.

Contemporary Quotations
Sponsored by American University's School of Communication, the site honors the work of the late Rev. James B. Simpson, author of Simpson Contemporary Quotations. Search by text, author or category or browse by category.

The Quote Investigator (Garson O’Toole) blogs about popular quotations and his research into their origins.


Historic image of cards
Cards with literary quotations, depicting gravestones, landscapes, berries, plants and bees.

Digital ID 486298, New York Public Library

Print Resources

The research collections at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building offer a large collection of quotations books, some of which are on the open shelf in the Rose Main Reading Room.

Benham's Book of Quotations, Proverbs, and Household Words
William G. Benham
The English-language section of this dictionary of quotations is arranged by author.

Bloomsbury Dictionary of Quotations
This work is arranged by author; a keyword index is supplied.Brewer's Famous Quotations
Nigel Rees

The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Familiar Phrases
Burton E. Stevenson
This comprehensive work is arranged by subject with cross references to related headings; a keyword index is provided.

The Home Book of Quotations, Classical and Modern
selected and arranged by Burton Stevenson
This comprehensive dictionary of quotations is primarily arranged by subject; author and keyword indexes are provided.

Hoyt's New Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations Drawn from the Speech and Literature of All Nations
J.K. Hoyt
This comprehensive collection, arranged by subject, includes author and keyword indexes.

International Thesaurus of Quotations
edited by Eugene H. Ehrlich
Primarily arranged by subject, this work is also indexed by author, source, and keyword.

Familiar Quotations
John Bartlett
A standard, comprehensive collection whose primary arrangement is by author (listed chronologically by birth date).

A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources
Henry Louis Mencken
This comprehensive collection, notable for its inclusion of many lesser-known quotations, is arranged only by subject (with cross references to related headings). No indexes.

The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase, Saying, and Quotation
edited by Elizabeth Knowles
Arranged primarily by themes or subjects, supplemented by keyword index.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
Arranged by author, this dictionary supplies a keyword index.

The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When
edited by Ralph Keyes
Arranged primarily in alphabetical order by quote keywords, with a name and keyword index.

Willis Goth Regier

Webster's New World Dictionary of Quotations
Arranged by author, with keyword index.

What They Didn't Say: A Book of Misquotations

The Wisdom of the Novel: A Dictionary of Quotations
David Powell
Arranged by subject, author, novel, and keyword indexes are provided.

Yale Book of Quotations
edited by Fred R. Shapiro
Arranged primarily by author, with keyword index.

Have a question about a quotation? Email for assistance.