“Expert Scholarship” Versus “People of Dubious Background”

(p. 71) The acknowledgment, by name, of volunteers in the preface sections of the OED is akin to Wikipedia’s edit history, where one can inspect who contributed to each article. Some Oxford contributors were professors, some royalty, but most were ordinary folks who answered the call. Winchester, in The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, tells the story of the “madman” William Chester Minor, a U.S. Civil War survivor whose “strange and erratic behavior” resulted in him shooting an “innocent working man” to death in the street in Lambeth. He was sent to Broadmoor asylum for criminal lunatics. He discovered the OED as a project around 1881, when he saw the “Appeal for Readers” in the library, and worked for the next twenty-one years contributing to the project, receiving notoriety as a contributor “second only to the contributions of Dr. Fitzedward Hall in enhancing our illustration of the literary history of individual words, phrases and constructions.” Minor did something unusual in not just sending submissions, but having his own cataloging system such that the dictionary editors could send a postcard and “out the details flowed, in abundance and always with unerring accuracy.” Until Minor and Murray met in January 1891, no one working with (p. 72) the OED knew their prolific contributor was a madman and murderer housed at Broadmoor.

As we will see in later chapters, a common question of the wiki method is whether one can trust information created by strangers and people of dubious background. But the example of the OED shows that using contributors rather than original expert scholarship is not a new phenomenon, and that projects built as a compendium of primary sources are well suited for harnessing the power of distributed volunteers.

Lih, Andrew. The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia. New York: Hyperion, 2009.
(Note: italics in original.)

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