bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

How to Research in the Online-Only World, part II: not so wicked Wikipedia

Posted in Academic Practices, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 20 May, 2020

In the first instalment of these ten tips on researching online, we talked about what you need to do before you start searching online. Today’s suggestions are about what will happen when you type your first query and press enter. Tip II can be summarised as: do use Wikipedia as a springboard for your research.

It is everywhere: you open your browser, you provide a search term, and, in most cases, one of the top results will be a Wikipedia entry. We all know that the world’s favourite online encyclopaedia is not to be trusted – they tell us so themselves – but it is also unavoidable. The sensible approach, then, is not to pretend it does not exist and to move on to the next hit but to read it conscious of its quirks and limitations. This, of course, is what we must do with everything we read, but Wikipedia has some particular difficulties — as well as some advantages.

In a schema popular in the US, Wikipedia constitutes a ‘tertiary source’, that is something which is not a distillation and interpretation of the primary evidence but a distillation of those distillations (which are termed secondary works). In this tertiary category sit all reference works. What marks Wikipedia out from all encyclopedias is its policy that anyone can edit it, and that is often seen has a cause for concern, a sort of worry about what happens when you let non-experts loose. I have suggested in the past that this principle does not, in fact, make it inherently any more unreliable than traditional encyclopaedias. The observation I made some years ago still holds true: the better-known concepts and characters might receive attention from editors who are more opinionated than well-informed but, if the subject is relatively obscure, Wikipedia is sometimes a fuller and more helpful resource than other encyclopaedias, which would give the topic at most cursory attention. That is because, for those articles where few people bother to make a contribution, the ‘anyone’ who provides the information is likely to have a scholarly interest in the subject — like, for instance, being someone who has written their MA dissertation on it. What I will say has changed since I made that observation is that some of the larger articles have become more shapeless: text tends to accrue rather than be deleted, with the result that it can read as stilted or even self-contradictory.

The implication of what I have just said is that there is wide variation in the quality of articles in Wikipedia. So, how do you decide whether the piece you are reading is a stinker or not? Here comes the first piece of advice:

  1. Scroll to the bottom — after all, it is the section called ‘References’ which is going to be most useful for you, letting you move away from Wikipedia to other resources. Look at this section and ask yourself two questions: how up-to-date are the works cited? Are they scholarly? The first of these, which (as we will see in Tip III) is a question you should regularly ask, is straightforward: look at the dates of publication. The second may need a little explanation: while it is not always an accurate guide, where something is published may suggest its scholarly worth. Being printed in an academic journal or a university press is no guarantee of quality, but if what is being cited is (for instance) a newspaper or a commercial site, alarm bells should ring. As an example, let us look at this article about an academic playwright and author from fifteenth-century England. Wikipieda ChaundlerThe text looks fairly full — this is not what Wikipedia calls a stub — but look down to the ‘attribution’ and ‘references’. The attribution explains that part of the text has been imported from the Dictionary of National Biography (universally abbreviated to DNB). That was a worthy reference work at the beginning of the twentieth century (the article used was published in 1901) but it has been superseded by the more recent, rewritten Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (abbreviation: ODNB). You can check how much has actually been imported from the DNB, because the original text is available on another wiki site, Wikisource. If we now look at the references cited on the Wikipedia page, they do not suggest that article has been substantially supplemented. The first is to a German reference work, while the second comes from a scholarly journal, but it is a review of a 1970 edition of a play of Chaundler. Reviews are not something you would usually expect to find cited in a scholarly work — they themselves are ‘tertiary’ in the sense that they mainly comment on others’ work with the primary evidence. This Wikipedia page is, in fact, so indebted to ‘tertiary sources’ that it could be called quaternary.
  2. Understand how the page has come to be how it is at the moment — the citations each page provides help you gain some sense of how much trust you can place in it but you can go further. Look to the top of each article and you will see some tabs. To the right, just left of the search box, there is ‘view history’. Click on this and you can trace through the editing process. Wikipedia is an encycolopedia that lets you see its workings in a way no other would. You may not, however, find that listing of edits, scintillating reading. For something more informative, go to top left, and next to ‘Article’, you will see ‘Talk’; click on that and you will see discussion betweent the various contributors about how to improve the article. These are most entertaining when dealing with a controversial figure, like Richard III. The entries reveal how repeated and valiant attempts have been made to save the page from the immoderate partisanship of that monarch’s latterday supporters. It must be admitted, though, that they have not managed to delete the clanger of a statement that the Battle of Bosworth ‘marked the end of the Middle Ages in England’, as if one August afternoon in 1485 was when the light-switch was flicked from darkness to modernity. Leaving that aside, what the ‘view history’ and ‘talk’ tabs do is let you understand how a page has come to be as it is, and return in a few days or weeks and you can see how it has changed again. So, if an article does not read well, look to these sections to appraise how that has happened.
  3. You will need to verify what you read — it is an article of faith among historians that we trust no one, not the writers of the primary evidence nor the scholars who have gone before us. But Wikipedia requires particular care. Remember: it has a policy that no original research should be included on its pages. So, in every case, ask yourself: from what secondary work did they get this information? Here the references and external links will help. You will want to check them to find out on what basis they make a claim that has been repeated here.
  4. Remember that Wikipedia is not one encyclopedia but several — it exists in a wide range of languages, including (I am pleased to say) in Latin. The crucial point is that the articles are often not simply translations from one tongue to another but are largely independent of each other. Some of you might say: what use is that to me when I only read English? Don’t worry, you have time to learn more languages. For now, though, if you only read one language, it is all the more important that you check the other versions: if you are thinking of a research topic and find there are major works on that subject in another language, you may want to think again (or start learning the language straightaway). And you do not need much linguistic knowledge to navigate a Wikipedia page because they are all laid out in the same way. So, scroll down the left-hand side of the screen and you will see that the last section is entitled ‘languages’: click on those to find what is being said about your intended subject in other countries.
  5. Think of editing Wikipedia yourself — you must not take the democratic principle that anyone can edit the online encyclopedia to mean ‘anyone but me’. As you develop your knowledge, you are likely to be able to make valuable improvements to a page. Do not be a passive recipient of knowledge, be one of its creators. There are already some people in MEMS who do it: join us.

The wording of this tip is not my own: it is Wikipedia’s. They do not expect you to rely on it unthinkingly. The main advantage it has for you is that it can lead you to other sites and materials. It can help you begin the virtual paper-chase that is building your bibliography — and that will be the topic for the next instalment.

The coffee table and its book

Posted in Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 28 August, 2014

‘The so-called “coffee-table book”, the big, richly-illustrated volume designed to be looked at rather than read, and left casually round the house rather than put on a shelf.’ The Times, 2nd July 1964, p. 16.

‘There is no longer a market for those hollow tomes known as ‘coffee-table books’. Overproduced and – so far as their contents go – underdeveloped, these volumes were put out internationally by a few chains of publishing houses, who cashed in on the postwar wave of culture-consciousness and travel-lust created by years of destruction and isolation.’ Douglas Cooper celebrating ‘The Demise of the Coffee-Table Book’ , TLS, 20th June 1968, pp. 643-4.

‘Coffee-table book is a pejorative term, because it suggests decoration and furniture: an object that needs a table under it in order to be admired – rather than a reader.’ Roger Conover in The Art Journal,  lxv / 4 (2006) p. 45.

What did the inoffensive, unobtrusive coffee table do to have to carry such a burden? Is there a conspiracy of tee-totallers so implacably inimical to all things caffeine that it feels it must heap guilt on this low-lying piece of lounge furniture? Coffee — that symbol of sociability, even of a public sphere alight with quick-fire debate — becomes associated with the wooden table of the private household and that, in turn, becomes linked to the wood-pulp of paper bound up to be pulpy, glossy hard-back publications that symbolise an unintellectual or anti-intellectual culture. Books there to divert the sitter when their host is out of the room or when conversation lags. What tergiversations our language has taken.

‘Coffee table’ itself seems to be a phrase from the later nineteenth century, though how such a table contrasts with others I am not sure: was this a new word for an old object? The ‘coffee-table book’, on the other hand, is first recorded in 1962 – though its use, in a book title (The Coffee Table Book of Astrology, edited by John Lynch: your future will be read with elevenses), suggests that the term was already in circulation, if not in common usage: articles in the years immediately following repeatedly feel the need to define it, suggesting that they are minting its currency. One of those articles, in The Sunday Times Magazine for November 1963 (I take this reference from the OED), talks of it as a replacement for an older term – the ‘grand-piano book’ – but I have not found any sighting of that phrase in the OED or in my (admittedly brief) searches elsewhere.

This is not the history of the term that Wikipedia provides. Yes, the on-line encyclopaedia has a page for it, and, yes, it has enough misreadings and inaccuracies to please its detractors. For instance, it claims  the term was used in nineteenth-century Britain but its reference is to a 1979 journal review which states no such thing. Or, at least, it claims it today and will do until it is re-written — that is a key advantage of the site. The webpage also helpfully provides an image of a coffee table, replete with two mugs and a fat book. Look closely and you can identify the volume: it is David Silcox’s The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson (2003). If you want to buy it, it is still in print and you can do so — in fact, according to the sales blurb, you must do so because it ‘would make a lovely gift, or keepsake of Canada, and a “must have” for any art enthusiast’. What? To give, to keep, to hold — but how about to read? That, of course, is the source of the animus of the middle-to-high brow against this type of book: it may be diverting but it diverts the publishing industry from what they perceive to be its primary task, to make available to all the world true mind-expanding intellectual texts, with little need for technicolor illustration.

That, though, is not what interests me in the term. I came to thinking about the history of the concept (and there is my pitch for a bestseller: the Illustrated History of Coffee Table Books, a sure-fire Christmas stocking filler, if you are XL) because I was considering the semiotics of the shape of books. To put it briefly, we expect our books to have a width:height ratio of about 2:3 and anything widely divergent from that — Mr Silcox’s work at 85:100 is typical of the coffee-table book-size — suggests it has a different use; it is, in our cultural understanding, a book which is not a book. That perception is reinforced by a name — grand-piano as much as coffee-table — which suggests that it is a book out of place: it is not, as The Times put it, found on the shelf. Books should be kept upright in cases, not flat on tables. If, that is, you have space for book-cases (and – I hear my dear wife reminding me — if you have few enough books that they can be contained therein). There is something in the terminology about inappropriate behaviour: a book is not to read while tinkling on the ivories, nor to peruse over a cup of hot coffee. It is inappropriate because it is in the wrong position, with the assumptions that implies of there being right spaces and correct habits. What, your house has no library? As Lord Curzon would have said: can such poverty exist?

There is, in other words, a hint in the phrasing about the changing shape of dosmetic space and about the practices that go on behind its closed doors. The animus against coffee-table books suggest a sort of mercantilist concern that publishing is a finite size and if more glossy volumes are produced, the number of honest, hard-thinking books will decline. This, of course, need not be the case. But perhaps there is something more fundamental here: colourful tomes are easy not just on the eye but on the mind; lazy books lead to lazy reading. Was it to this end we struggled towards universal literacy, might be the complaint. In other words, reading is not enough – right reading is what is required, and that requires the right location and the right book. It would be easy to shout this down as an élitist desire to control but do you not hear the fear in the voice? The perplexity at plurality — there is no one reading but a plethora of practices. Just as there is no end to books — and no no-go areas for them.

[He stops and goes to put the kettle on].