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When scholarship meets Wikipedia

January 15, 2010 | 10:21 am


Maybe you have to be something of a fan of early jazz to know coronetist Bix Beiderbecke -- he's in the picture above, horn pointed at the camera. Beiderbecke was an influential performer in the late 1920s, but he died young -- in 1931, just 28 years old -- and he hasn't made it as far into the popular consciousness as, say, Dizzie Gillespie or Louis Armstrong. 

One who does know Beiderbecke is Brendan Wolfe. Wolfe not only named his litblog for the musician; he's at work on a book about him for Speck Press, which recently published Ted Goia's "The Birth (and Death) of the Cool." Wolfe, a longtime writer and editor, currently works as an encyclopedia editor.

So one day this summer, he decided he would update Beiderbecke's Wikipedia entry. "The entry I found was terrible," he writes. "Part of why I did this is because I love Wikipedia. I think it's a great resource, and I say that even though the online encyclopedia that employs me follows a different model."

All went well, as Wolfe poured his knowledge, scholarship and research into a new entry. As it stands now (after Wolfe's work, and possibly inclusive of others) Beiderbecke's Wikipedia entry lists more than 30 sources and includes 111 footnotes. This is a fairly high degree of research for the online encyclopedia; by contrast, Chick Webb, another major 1920s performer who died in the 1930s, has an entry with just 10 sources and no footnotes at all.

But there was a hitch. While Wolfe was working with others behind the scenes at Wikipedia, they suggested he submit it for "good article" status. He waited, very anxiously at first, to hear from a volunteer Wikipedia editor; months later, he did. And he was dismayed by what he heard. This was one note, which begins with the editor quoting Wolfe's writing:

"the second number was marred by alcohol consumed by the musicians, who included Tommy Dorsey on trombone and Beiderbecke's best friend, Don Murray, on clarinet". Does this implies that Tommy Dorsey and Don Murray contributed to the alcoholic mistaken in the 2d number? Tommy Dorsey and Don Murray contributed to Beiderbecke's life or work at last, except as members as the same band for a while? If these 2 musicians NOT contributed in at least of one of these aspects, they are irrevelant - just name dropping.

Wolfe writes, "I am not embarrassed to admit that this filled me with rage. As did this:" (again, the note begins with a quote from Wolfe's entry; the bullet points are from the editor):

"(The headmaster went so far as to inform Mr. and Mrs. Beiderbecke, about Bix, "that certain parents have objected strenuously to their sons' association with him.)"
  • The parentheses are dishonest - either you take responsibility their content and for the space they take in section.
  • If the item is retained, the headmaster's florid prose needs to be replaced with something consise.

No wonder he was angry. The editor's comments are riddled with grammatical errors ("does this implies", "alcoholic mistaken") and misspellings ("irrevelant", "consise"). While this is, admittedly, a behind-the-scenes discussion, the editor's critique is so sloppily written that it verges on the indecipherable.

It's an example of what Jaron Lanier called the "fallacy of the infallible collective" in his critique of Wikipedia. Someone clearly ill-suited for vetting articles for quality was in a position of doing just that. Eventually, however, the collective worked out its kinks: The first editor ceased reviewing the article, and another took over and awarded it the "good" rating.

And there it is, Bix Beiderbecke explained in great detail on Wikipedia. Perhaps, as Wolfe hopes, it will spark interest in the musician that might lead people to his forthcoming book. Equally likely, sadly, is that it will scare other scholars off from investing their time in creating well-rounded Wikipedia entries.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image credit: Columbia Jazz Masterpieces