Open Codex HISTORICAL entry

2011 Dec 02 | A response to Loveland’s GFC review

I noted in the latest Signpost a new review of Good Faith Collaboration from Jeff Loveland has appeared in the Annals of Science. Loveland is a historian of eighteenth-century encyclopedias, a perspective I’ve been keen to hear as I’ve had reviews from about every other discipline!

While Loveland has some nice things to say, he writes:

Good-Faith Collaboration has one major weakness, namely in historical contextualization. As noted above, Reagle deliberately limits his historical survey to chapter 2 through the 20th century, which excuses his inattention to Vincenzo Coronelli’s Bibliotheca universale and Johann Heinrich Zedler’s Universal-Lexicon, both of which were meant to include contributions from a certain public at large in a manner reminiscent of Wikipedia.

Fair enough. He continues:

More seriously, the analysis of Wikipedia’s Neutral Point of View is compromised by Reagle’s conviction that “historically, reference works have made few claims about neutrality as a stance of collaboration, or as an end result” (p. 56). “Neutrality” may have not been much discussed by previous encyclopedias under this name, but references to such values as impartiality, unbiasedness and objectivity are frequent in the prefaces of encyclopedias over the last 300 years. (Loveland 2011, p. 557)

Granted, my focus in time is mostly restricted to the 20th century, but I find this critique intriguing none-the-less. My sense in reading the prefaces of varied 20th century encyclopedias was that their compilers were concerned with highlighting the authority of contributors, their discriminating expertise, and their systems for arranging knowledge in contrast to Wikipedia’s anonymity, neutrality, and folksonomy. There are exceptions, especially in the 18th century (Loveland’s area of expertise) when compilers like Samuel Johnson and Ephraim Chambers wrote much more humbly. Also, these two compilers are early proponents of what we might now call descriptive lexicography. Chambers, in the preface to his Cyclopedia wrote:

The Dictionarist, like an Historian, comes after the Affair; and gives a Description of what pass‘d….. The Dictionarist relates what has pass’d with regard to each of our Ideas, in the Coalitions, or Combinations that have been made thereof.... The Dictionarist is not supposed to have any hand in the Things he relates; he is no more concerned to make the Improvements, or establish the Significations, than the Historian to achieve the Transactions he relates. (Chambers 1728, p. xxii).

None-the-less, even this invocation of historian-like objectivity does not perfectly match 20th century notions, which are detailed in Peter Novick’s (1988) The Noble Dream: the “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession and Mark Smith’s (1994) Social Science in the Crucible: the American Debate over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918 – 1941. (And the Randian/Objectivist influence upon Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales adds yet another valence.)

This is a fascinating topic but unfortunately not a topic I presently spend a lot of time thinking about. However, it just so happens that earlier this year I read Loveland’s (2010) excellent monograph An Alternative Encyclopedia? Dennis de Coetlogon’s Universal History (1745). Therein, I delighted in reading about various plagiaristic practices of early encyclopedists and the ways in which compilers represented themselves in their works, from first-person “authorial disclosures” to religious and political polemics. One excerpt that I found especially amusing was de Coetlogon's defense that “I know that I have been accused of being a Papist; so I am, if to love truth, justice and impartiality is to be one; for I am really a Protestant against error, falsehood, injustice and calumny” (Loveland 2010, p. 193). In any case, I look forward to other scholars attempts to fit Wikipedia into more detailed and nuanced “historical contextualization”!

Open Communities, Media, Source, and Standards

by Joseph Reagle