What is life about anyway? (follow-up to: My hate affair with Wikipedia)

Scholars like me constantly need to check on biographical background on authors, politicians, etc. who lived in the period they work on. Be it in a letter, in a protocol, on a margin – you find a name and need additional information. What do you need and what does wikipedia give you?

First case: you have no idea who that person is and need a complete briefing. It happens often enough that some of the people that were intellectually active in the early 19th century have now disappeared in the limbo of the non-canonical and have hence been almost erased from the history of literature. In this case, there is most of the time not much to expect from a wikipedia biography. For instance, the French bio on Louis de Beausobre is a mix-up of information on both Beausobre brothers, who lived 30 years apart and whose careers have little in common.

Second case: you know who the person is, but need some additional information. When was it that he published this book, was he really friends with this or that person… This is also the kind of things you look for when preparing for a class (now how many husbands did Caroline Michaelis/Schlegel/Schelling have again, etc.). The problem is, you need that information to be reliable and precise. Wikipedia provides so much as no guarantee on that. See the English Boeckh bio:  the inconsequence between the title “Philipp August Böckh” and the first line “August Böckh” is obvious and does not suggest there was a serious double checking. (Boeckh never carried the name “Philipp”, but at some point, somebody transcribed his title “Dr. phil. August Boeckh” into a “Dr. Philipp August Boeckh” and this mistake has been carried on for centuries – but the official diplomas you can find in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK make it explicit that is in fact a mistake).

One first problem with the scholarly use of biographies is that we need something that is easily accessible online but reliable. Wikipedia provides the first, but not the second.

Let’s assume it would. Let’s assume we would have the right dates in the right order – person x born here and then, published this and that, with links to the corresponding texts that are available online.

But then, either it presents itself as a series of bullet points, ordered by date or theme, in which case there is no space for general information on the evolution of friendships on a large period of time, on the character of the person, etc. Or there actually is a biographical narrative backing the whole thing up. A quick comparison between the strictly biographical part of the French Derrida bio and the German one  shows the obvious advantage of the latter on the former – be it only because of the unnecessary repetition of information in the French one.

But Derrida is a complicated case, because it is so close to us and we have so little distance to his work that it is hard to talk about it without being, somehow, part in it. Let’s take a more objectivable example. Let’s take the German Dorothea Tieck bio, which I can say for sure is good. What is so good about it?

It provides reliable information on her life, her character, her work. It is clearly structured. And most important: the narrative allows the reader to figure out, in a few lines, what the main tensions in her life were, in which context she has been writing, what kind of person she was. It is, in a sense, a work of art. I mean it that way, too. Because it obviously corresponds to the way that we consider biographies should be conceived today. Compare it with the article from the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie and you will see how contingent – and historically ideological – these narratives are.

Because it is not possible to provide with a narrative and to remain neutral, biographies are bound to be faced with criticism concerning their credibility. I don’t think that adding them – that is, providing all the possible sources of information in parallel like it could be possible online, for the user to compare them – can satisfactorily solve that problem. But it should, in any case, address it.

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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1 Response

  1. Christof Schöch says:

    Hi Anne, now you are talking about real problems! This story about Boekh’s first name(s) is wonderful, and I wish you would copy it to the WP talk page, maybe with some reference backing it, let the statement sit there for a few days, and then go ahead and change the lemma of the article.

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