March 17, 2018

Meet the Quotable Librarian

You may have seen, in mainstream media outlets from the Huffington Post to Fox News, that Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” line is the quote of the year. It turns out that the arbiter of quotability, who selected that and the rest of the quotes of the year, is Fred Shapiro, who is also an academic librarian. Shapiro serves as an associate librarian at Yale Law School, as well as editor of 2006’s The Yale Book of Quotations, published by the Yale University Press.

47 percent quote cited on MSNBCShapiro told LJ that the original book took six years to compile. “I do it on my own time, but also had significant help from research assistants,” he explained.

His methodology for selection has “a lot of art involved,” Shapiro told LJ, “a lot of consultation with scholars and researchers (many of them librarians on the Stumpers listserv), and a lot of traditional library research in dusty stacks of old books.” (The now-defunct Stumpers listserv featured discussion of reference questions calling for above-and-beyond research by librarians; it has been succeeded by the memorably named Project Wombat.)

But Shapiro’s method is not all old-school. “I also, however, worked hard to place quotation compilation on a more scientific footing,” said Shapiro. “I did extensive searching of online collections of historical books, periodicals, and newspapers to verify origins and wording of quotations, and to help capture, as much as possible, all of the best-known quotations. Some of the research was quantitative, searching Google, LexisNexis, and other databases to see frequencies of occurrence.”

Annual lists like the one Romney topped are intended as an update to the book, but for those, Shapiro places more of an emphasis on timeliness. To develop those, “I leaned heavily on news sources and websites likely to pick up on current Internet memes and political trends,” he said, as well as consultation and quantitative research.

(Even with quantitative measures in the mix, consensus is hard to come by: Google Zeitgeist, released today, lists Romney’s “Big Bird” debate comment above the “47 percent” line in the category of 2012’s political gaffes.)

Shapiro has gathered “a tremendous amount of material” for a second edition of the book, but plans to publish it are not yet definite. In the meantime, the first edition is available in various ebook formats, he told LJ, and will soon be available as Yale University Press’s “very first app.”

Even though quotation-seeking is not part of his official job description, it does impact Shapiro’s work as a librarian: he says, “I frequently get quotation reference questions from Yale Law School faculty and students and people emailing or snail-mailing me from around the world.”

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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