Review: Historian Andrew Dalby chronicles Wikipedia, its philosophy, people and headlines

Nov 2, 2009 by     10 Comments    Posted under: Internet, Media

World and Wikipedia by Andrew DalbyAndrew Dalby’s The World and Wikipedia stands as one of the best chronicles to come from an active member of the site’s editing community because it is not a how-to manual, but an historical and philosophical overview.   His authority in writing such a book does not derive solely from his extensive involvement with the Internet; but also as a classic historian and librarian of the highest caliber.  From Wikipedia:

Dalby studied Latin, French and Greek at the Bristol Grammar School and University of Cambridge. Here he also studied Romance languages and linguistics, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1970.

Dalby worked for fifteen years at Cambridge University Library, eventually specializing in Southern Asia.

After his time at Cambridge, Dalby worked in London helping to start the library at Regent’s College and on renovating another library at London House (Goodenough College). He also served as Honorary Librarian of the Institute of Linguists, for whose journal The Linguist he writes a regular column. He later did a part-time Ph.D. in ancient history (in 1987-93), which improved his Latin and Greek. His Dictionary of Languages was published in 1998. Language In Danger, on the extinction of languages and the threatened monolingual future, followed in 2002.

With that pedigree and active involvement in Wikipedia projects in several languages, Dalby’s voice is an authoritatively neutral view on the birth, life, inner politics and future of the site.

A comprehensive resource

When you open a non-fiction book on a topic that you know a good deal about, it is interesting to immediately flip to the index.  There you can look for names and issues that show how well the author understood the subject.

Dalby uses two indexes: one that documents real life issues and people; and a second index of editor names.   The editor index is important as those are the people writing the site and making the arguments.  Hundreds of editors are documented for their effect on the site.  Antandrus, ChildofMidnight, Diderot, J.delanoy, Sceptre, Raul654, Steven Walling, SlimVirgin….Dalby’s index is practically a social register.

Particularly interesting are his insights into the conflicts on the non-English projects (especially the French).  The stories show English readers and writers of Wikipedia that they are not alone in trying to figure out how to handle “The Truth”.

Humanity’s flawed attempts to understand reality are illuminated often in the book, including a well-known example written by Bill Gates about Microsoft’s effort to produce Encarta:

The Bill Gates article had begun with a simple question.  ‘Did Thomas Edison invent the incandescent light bulb, or was it Sir Joseph Swam?’  This was followed by the admission that while the US version of Encarta credited Edison alone and did not even mention Swan, the British version had an additional entry on Swan and gave him equal credit.


The Microsoft editorial teams had developed their subjective approach to reality while localizing Encarta for various national markets around the world.  The Gates article then explored a second example of the same subjectivity:  did the Scottish-American Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone, or was it the Italian-American Antonio Meucci?  To McHenry’s horror, the article announced that while Bell was given the credit in other versions of Encarta, the Italian version, then in preparation, would emphasise Meucci’s work, adding only that, ‘in 1876 another inventor, A.G. Bell, patented a similar device.’


To give credit where it’s due, the Gates piece already foresaw that problems would arise when the different national versions of Encarta were all available online and people noticed that they were being fed different versions of reality.  No solution was proposed.

Robert McHenry, the aforementioned editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia Britannica at the time, criticized this openly:

How do the Encarta editors propose to deal with real conflicts? I have to wonder. How will they deal with the status and borders of Jammu and Kashmir? Will they prepare different versions for Greece and Turkey, treating Cyprus differently? For Greece and Macedonia, the former version making no reference to the latter state? For Britain and Argentina (remember the Falklands/Malvinas War)? For Israel and Syria? For Spanish-speaking and Basque-speaking Spain? For New York and New Jersey?

The same problems that confront editors of Wikipedia.

For the first time ever, humans from all walks of life are engaged not just in information consumption, but information analysis and composition.  Critics of Wikipedia often decry how it attempts to deal with problems like the Encarta example that have always existed.  There is no “The Truth”; there is no “reality” – there are only conceptions about it.

It’s fundamentally frustrating for people who were raised to trust whatever they found in their paper textbooks, paper encyclopedias and paper newspapers to now learn that what they learned were “best guesses” and often tainted by concerns other than the truth (sorry, Andrew Keen).

Much of the criticism of Wikipedia and its consensus decision-making and its perceived inaccuracy arises from an idealized time that never existed.  “Experts” disagree, or have agendas.  In this regard, the historian Dalby points out that Wikipedia has been a vast improvement on information gathering and analysis:

On Wikipedia not only do the proponents of different ‘realities’ argue them out publicly; in addition, Wikipedia has set its face firmly against national editions; and in addition to that, every reader can immediately compare what the different language versions have to say on any issues and what the different talk pages have had to say about it.

The challenges in writing about Wikipedia

The primary problem with Dalby’s book is not the writing nor the knowledge, but its presentation in the Siduri Books first edition.

The reader is faced with pages and pages of monotonous blocks of text roughly equal in length. Instead of structuring paragraphs so that they visually jump and come alive on the page, the aesthetic impact instead made my eyes sleepy.  When I first opened it, I found it difficult to enjoy until I hit Chapter 3 (“Why they hate it“).

Dalby handles another problem better than most:  Wikipedia’s labyrinthine rules and complex standards are a gauntlet to articulate.  They can easily distract any writer who does not want to examine processes, but focus on the meat of the issues.

On Wikipedia, the two are often inextricably linked, which can be a bore for most readers.

World admirably attempts to craft a narrative that is not weighed down by the site’s rules with the recognition that they can’t be ignored.  However, the sweet spot of writing Wikipedia narrative to make it interesting for non-Wikipedians remains elusive.  It may be an impossible task.

One solution Dalby used to differentiate between the real-life issues of an article subject and the issues pertinent to that subject’s Wikipedia article is to bold the article names.  For instance, Dalby spends a good deal of time on the recent controversies that involved David Boothroyd, the English politician who edited as Sam Blacketer; which are somewhat different issues than those that surrounded the now-deleted article David Boothroyd.

At first a minor bother, I came to forgive the boldface as an efficient method of differentiation.

Default to keep when no consensus to delete

Dalby’s background as an historian and librarian means that there is much attention paid to the philosophy of truth and information gathering.  Wikipedia is not new in its attempt to be an accurate compendium of knowledge; it is only new in how it attempts to do so.  Dalby recognizes this, and finds that at the least it is superior to many methods before it.  Even when an agenda might (temporarily) win on the site, it will eventually have to contend with the presentation of a significant minority’s view alongside it.

He covers antiquated controversies, such as the Essjay and Siegenthaler incidents.  He also explores the pettiness of Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger over the co-founder issue.

Most important, he explains why things on Wikipedia are the way they are now.  For instance, he reviews an important-but-old bit of drama between Larry Sanger, who had a far more autocratic view for the site under his own authority; and editor The Cunctator, whose articles Sanger was summarily deleting himself.  In 2001, many feared the result would be to keep out information from the “sum of human knowledge” that not everybody agreed was worthless.  Jimmy Wales waded in to the dispute, the conclusion of which led to Wikipedia’s current “Default to keep when there is no consensus to delete”:

We enjoy finding these old arguments on forgotten talk pages.  Partly because they explain why Wikipedia is the way it is — and that matters to you as well as to us.  Looking back at Jimmy Wales’s intervention between Sanger and The Cunctator and his ruling that page deletions should be explained and the explanation archived, we realise that this is the exact precedent for what is done now:  if a new page is nothing but vandalism, or a mispelling, or totally unsuited to an encyclopedia, it can be deleted on sight by an admin.  But if it’s arguably out of scope or insufficiently ‘notable’, any editor may propose to delete or merge it, and there’ll be a discussion, which someone will, after a few days, conclude, announcing a consensus one way or the other.  If there’s no consensus, the article survives by default.  This practice, for which The Cunctator can claim credit, means that although more unprepossessing pages are deleted, their shadows — the deletion discussions — live on.  [See pages 122-125]

Worth the purchase for any editor wanting to understand the site, or anyone wanting to learn about how and why communal decision-making works on the world’s largest collection of knowledge.

10 Comments + Add Comment

  • “The best”…since Broughton’s book? Hmm, seems you might be overlooking the one by Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates. It’s a fine read.

    Thanks for this review, looking forward to a closer read.

    • Good point, Pete, although I was trying to more make the point that Dalby’s book isn’t a how-to manual, but an ontological and historical accounting of Wikipedia as it exists today that pays little attention to how to take part in it. So, the “best” comment should be read in that regards, and not as a slight against How Wikipedia Works, the book you link to.

  • Wikipedia, with a 97% share of the online encyclopedia market, has forced Microsoft to shut down Encarta. How long will it be before Wikipedia claims the prize scalp of Encyclopaedia Britannica?

    Encyclopaedia Britannica did not think that an open source product like Wikipedia would significantly challenge the credibility of its brand. They were dead wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica’s staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model. From a corporate and financial perspective, Encyclopaedia Britannica is in significant trouble.

    Over the next year or so we will see the continued demise of Britannica as it becomes ever less relevant in a free market, Wikipedia-dominated landscape.

  • A lot of this post was over my head (sorry) but I am looking for a book about the philosophy of information for a paper that I am working on, so this book might give insight. Thank you.

  • A footnote to S Willaimson’s comment above. Yes, I am really concerned that Wikipedia will undermine the alternatives and we will be left with nothing else. The book explores how this has happened, and is still happening, in overseas markets. French, German and other encyclopedias are collapsing. Brockhaus, the big German encyclopedia first published in 1808, will offer no new printed editions after 2008. Its latest DVD version is on sale at 100 euros, its online version is free, and its business model can’t sustain any future version that relies on expert authors (example from page 199 of The World and Wikipedia).

    And, as we know, it’s happening in the English-speaking market too. I don’t see Britannica surviving much longer.

  • Dalby, rumor has it that the book is little more than fanboy and you don’t talk about the massive scandals enough. Seems like you are here on Shankbone’s blog to bow before the Wiki-Gods. You call people like SlimVirgin and Durova brave, when they are the worst players of the game.

    Why should I read this crap?

  • “Wiki-Gods”? You lost everyone after that.

  • It was only this review which alerted me to my own walk-on part in the book, but I looked out for a copy and I have to say the write-up so far as I am concerned is well-informed and very fair. There might have been more I would have wanted to explain about how the media treated the story (such as it was) but then there’s no obligation on an author to contact someone they write about.

    I’m thinking of giving a copy of the book as a present to someone I know who keeps saying “you were deleted from Wikipedia!” as though it was some sort of personal affront.

  • Thanks for the mention. I can also essentially claim credit for the development of featuring breaking news on the homepage; the standard of infoboxes; and a number of standards for protocol and community that as you point out still exist in some form.


    • …and also the Wikipedia logo :-)

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