Attribution by Google

Posted by Abigail Williams on Monday, September 19, 2011 with No comments
Rebekah King, a first-year English student, has been doing some research work on our miscellanies. She's been trying to attribute authorship in a couple of collections, using only freely available online resources. This is her account of her experiences:

Google as a Research Tool

Anyone who has ever used the Google search engine will know from experience that you aren’t necessarily guaranteed an immediate list of fantastically useful responses; the more obscure the search phrase, the more hit-and-miss the results can be. I was using Google to try to attribute some of the poems from ‘Miscellaneous Pieces Consisting of Select Poetry and Prose and Methods of Improvement in Husbandry’ in which there are 103 poems punctuated by useful descriptions of ‘how to make ewes take ram by artificial means’ and the various methods of cultivating root vegetables. Google was an incredibly quick and user-friendly resource through which I was able to find the authors of about 50 poems, with the search-engine proffering information from all manner of public databases including its own GoogleBooks. This in itself was an incredibly useful resource; poems mentioned in other 18th century documents such as the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ were available to look at via GoogleBooks which often mentioned at least the surname of the poet, by which it was then possible to search for the name in whole.

Google, however, didn’t always come up trumps. A good example of the dangers of Googling is in the instance of the fairly unknown ‘The Drone and the Spider’, a work ‘in imitation of Mr Gay’ outlining the necessity of patience and the futility of complaint, as delivered by a spider to an enmeshed bee. Not having heard of the poem, Google failed to present me with a single useful source of information, instead explaining helpfully that ‘spider drones are small robots employed by the Chinese army’ whose ‘primary method of attack is to approach enemy targets and then explode’. Needless to say, Google is not an infallible resource.

The sources that Google did produce appeared to be fairly reliable and, as mentioned, the contemporary texts available on GoogleBooks were particularly watertight. Occasionally the best source of authorship came from independent websites dedicated to a certain author (John Gay and Elizabeth Rowe for example). Sometimes it was necessary to rely on slightly unorthodox sources of information; I would find many of the religious poems on modern hymn websites such as ‘’ which would list the poems of authors such as Isaac Watts whilst playing the pleasant piano-recorded melodies of the poems when one entered the website. If a source was less reliable but suggested an author, it was then possible to re-search the key phrase with this possibility and find a corroborating source.

In a few instances a poem, such as one of the fables of John Gay, would appear in a slightly different version with an extra verse at the beginning or the end just to confuse someone like me but ultimately, it was a straightforward task. When using Google it is certainly worth trying two or more phrases from the poem when searching: for example, I occasionally found poems where the title had been altered and I had only found the poem by searching for the first line.

Overall, I found Google an incredibly useful research tool which could recognise around half of the poems in ‘Miscellaneous Pieces…’ and pulled information from a variety of sources including the individual websites of certain authors and its own GoogleBooks. One might occasionally meander into an online hymn book or a description of a small Chinese robot but, on the whole, Google is a surprisingly useful research tool.

Rebekah King