Wednesday, October 20, 2004


History wiki

For reasons similar to the ones Jason Kuznicki gives, things have been slow at Mode for Caleb lately. I'm hoping to rectify the situation soon, but lately I've been walking in the shadow of the valley of deadlines, fearing all kinds of evil. Blogging has thus seemed like more of a rod than a comforting staff.

Speaking of Jason's blog, though, I highly recommend Positive Liberty if you are not reading it already. Jason is a friend and fellow graduate student here at Hopkins, and although I disagree from time to time with what I read at PL, it has always been an agreeable disagreement. Jason values pluralism, and for that reason he takes differences of opinion seriously and respectfully, which is more than you can say for much of the blogosphere, or indeed for the public sphere in general.

Jason recently posted some interesting thoughts on fact-checking among those two rare birds: bloggers and historians. He points out that while famous blogs are scrutinized carefully for errors within minutes of being published, it often takes years to check the facts in a historical monograph. Sometimes historians' facts are never checked, because the evidence for them is buried in archives that only a few have the ability to visit.

Moreover, fact-checking in history is constrained by institutional and practical realities. Many original historical claims are "the product of an afternoon's exhausted work, by a scared 20-something, in a foreign city, in a language he does not understand, in an ocean of lost cultural signifiers." That work is checked by a dissertation committee that has to take the word of the "scared 20-something." And the result is that many errors--large and small--are allowed to stand, even in the work of established and brilliant scholars, for many moons.

Jason believes an ideal historiographical "wiki" might help:
Could historians learn from bloggers? You bet. It's possible to imagine history conducted along radically different lines, yet still doing the same work as today--or possibly better.

Imagine, for instance, a historians' wiki, modeled on Wikipedia, that would include within it the full texts of major monographs in history. Each passage could be noted and commented by anyone who wished--or, if you want to keep the authority of the academy sufficiently strong, only let the advanced graduate students and higher do it.

But either way, we could all be asked to vote on the veracity of different assertions, to check off whether we personally had seen the evidence on which the claims were made, and to state as specifically as possible where the errors were to be found. No longer would a historian go into the archives, get something wrong, and let it stand for twenty to thirty years. In the wiki future, historians would be rewarded--this part is crucial--on the basis of their fact-checking, not merely on how many articles they manage to turn out in a given time.

Annotation would grow on annotation; digressions and duplications would no doubt be common. But a wiki-based approach to history would break the authority of the published text in precisely the way that bloggers have done so convincingly for current events.

It would be an enormous task, of course. But I suspect it would prevent a lot of errors from cropping up in history to begin with and would mercilessly prune out the ones that are already there.
Most historians, I think, share Jason's frustration with the difficulty in pruning errors from historical scholarship. That frustration is in part a kind of sublimated self-loathing, since I'm sure most historians remember being "scared 20-somethings." That memory, whether of long ago or of yesterday, makes us all worry about being prone to error. If you read Jason's full post, you'll see that his dismay over recently finding serious errors in a senior historian's work almost made him disserticidal. "This individual is among the most respected in my field. What errors will one day be found in my own work? What errors have I already made?" (Step away from the edge, Jason ...)

The idea of a huge historians' "wiki" resurrects the old question of whether history is primarily an art or a science, a dilemma that vexed many of the nineteenth-century forerunners to professional historians. The will-to-science in history always makes small errors seem large; the scientist in every historian wants to get every last detail right, wants to make sure that his fact-finding and fact-checking tools are faultless and finely calibrated.

But the will-to-artistry in history is less affected by the occasional error, because the historian as artist realizes that if the devil is in the details, the divine muse is in the big picture. In his 1828 essay on "History," Lord Macaulay pointed out that "a history in which every particular incident may be true may on the whole be false." Even if we could check all the facts, and correct all the errors, of historical scholarship, we would not thereby have made good works of history.

If we did have a history "wiki," it might well serve the scientific impulse in historiography -- to get the facts right, to get back to the archives, to make no mistake about it. But it might do so at the cost of historical craftsmanship. Jason points out that his ideal wiki would likely have all sorts of digressions and annotations upon annotations. But as such debates and detours multiplied, they would take on an importance out of proportion to their actual worth. As discussions on "facts" proliferated, they might distort the larger story that a historian has to tell. And thus, for the sake of abolishing errors of fact, the "wiki" might lead to errors of emphasis and interpretive weight.

This is, I would argue, one of the general disadvantages of "wiki" models of information sharing. By allowing anyone to add anything, a sense of balance, of narrative, of personal artistry is inevitably lost. Small matters, simply by virtue of their inclusion in a "wiki" entry, take on significance. In the Wikipedia entry on William Lloyd Garrison, for instance, one of the first pieces of information is the pseudonym he used as a young editor. I do not know any scholar of abolitionism who would deem this significant enough to appear at the top of the article. Of course, the "wiki" allows me to "correct" this, but it's not a simple matter of fixing an error. It's a matter of how I would paint the picture, the perspectives and palettes I would use. It's a question of art, not science, and while "wikis" are conducive to the scientific checking of information, they are not as conducive to artistry.

When scholars feel the urge to zoom in on the details -- as Jason, I, and many other historians no doubt do from time to time -- it might be good to consider Macaulay's cautionary advice:
Diversity, it is said, implies error: truth is one, and admits of no
degrees. We answer, that this principle holds good only in abstract reasonings. When we talk of the truth of imitation in the fine arts, we mean an imperfect and a graduated truth. No picture is exactly like the original; nor is a picture good in proportion as it is like the original. When Sir Thomas Lawrence paints a handsome peeress, he does not contemplate her through a powerful microscope, and transfer to the canvas the pores of the skin, the blood-vessels of the eye, and all the other beauties which Gulliver discovered in the Brobdignaggian maids of honour. If he were to do this, the effect would not merely be unpleasant, but, unless the scale of the picture were proportionably enlarged, would be absolutely false. And, after all, a microscope of greater power than that which he had employed would convict him of innumerable omissions. The same may be said of history. Perfectly and absolutely true it cannot be: for, to be perfectly and absolutely true, it ought to record all the slightest particulars of the slightest transactions -- all the things done and all the words uttered during the time of which it treats. The omission of any circumstance, however insignificant, would be a defect. If history were written thus, the Bodleian library would not contain the occurrences of a week.
Part of me likes Jason's idea of a great big historians' "wiki," because it would usefully criticize the authority of published books in the way that blogging is starting to keep the mainstream media honest. But authority and honesty, while certainly important, are not the only things we look for in good history books. We also turn to them for context, for narrative, for symmetry, for color. Those are the things a "wiki" might militate against.

Indeed, if historians can learn from bloggers about checking facts, bloggers might also take some lessons from historians and mainstream journalists about crafting "fiction," by which I do not just mean "made-up stories." In that case, the blogosphere might be treated to more portraits of handsome peeresses, and fewer close-ups of pimples and pores.

Collective Improvisation:

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