Thursday, August 9, 2007

Wikipedia and the social OED

Good article on the NYT about the State Of The Wikipedia w/ an interview of Jimmy Wales. Read the article, I'm not gonna sum it up. The part that struck me was this line:

There are Polish history buffs out there. There are also people who say, “Give me a list and I’ll work on it.” Here is a list of all the mayors of Warsaw and I will go through and find what I can find.

He's talking about why people write/edit the Wikipedia. And it reminded me very much of the book, "The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary." (WorldCat Libraries, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (P.S.)Amazon)

The book chronicles the creation of the first OED. One of the differences (if you don't know) between the OED and other dictionaries is that the Oxford defines words partly by placing them in past written works. So, to help put together the first edition, the main editorial staff hired hundreds of amateur editors, all over England, to pour through previously published books and documents, looking for usages of words to which they'd been assigned.

The "madman" in the title is an American Civil War veteran who had been imprisoned for life for the murder of an Irishman. From his asylum, he proves to be one of the most prolific and accomplished editors. A total, tree-dwelling loon. But the chief editor of the OED didn't even know he was in an asylum -- the address was the name of the manor that had been converted into the facility -- until many years after the fellow had been contributing hundreds of words.

It was all done by mail, on wee cards. The OED, king of dictionaries, relied on hundreds of individual, amateur researchers and editors. And if that's not social networking, I don't know what is.

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