Sunday, September 30, 2007

Glut? Gunk!

You've probably had the experience of participating in some activity that was later covered by print or TV news. In many cases, the report of the event is so wrong, so different to what you experienced, that you could hardly recognize it as being the same event. Similarly, when reporters write about something you know intimately, the reports are almost always aggravatingly wrong.

The same is true about books, of course. I thoroughly enjoyed Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, which drove real scientists nuts for everything it got wrong. Now I'm going out of my mind reading Alex Wright's Glut, which I can only describe as poorly researched, and in some cases just outright wrong.

I became suspicious when I read on page 21
"It is no coincidence that snakes have been a leading cause of human mortality throughout our species' history, so it should come as no surprise that the occurrence of serpent imagery tracks closely to the prevalence of poisonous snakes in particular regions."
I don't doubt that snakes are scary creatures and they sure do seem to show up in all kinds of ancient imagery and tales, but "a leading cause of human mortality"? I don't think so. Famine, pestilence, war -- those are leading causes of human mortality. Snakes? A drop in the bucket.

OK, we all can slip up when we get going at the keyboard, and I figured that his editors just hadn't paid attention. Then I got to page 79 where he says:
"... a new form of document: the codex book, so named because it originated from attempts to 'codify' the Roman law in a format that supported easier information retrieval."
Codex comes from "codify"? Were the Romans speaking English? And besides, I'd recently read a few books on book history myself and those all referred to that origin as being from the Latin term "caudex" referring to wood used as the first book covers. The use of "code" for groups of laws came from the term "codex," not vice versa. I began to wonder where he would have gotten such a definition, and on a hunch decided to look at the Wikipedia entry on Codex. There had been some confusion between codex and code in an early Wikipedia version of the codex page, and it was removed:
"Mistaking Codex for Code

I moved this mis-stated misunderstanding here: "A legal text or code of conduct is sometimes called a codex (for example, the Justinian Codex), since laws were recorded in large codices." This is simply an error, one that doesn't come into educated or official discourse. --Wetman 20:14, 9 May 2006 (UTC)

I have no idea if that is where Wright got his information, but this statement makes the same mistake that Wright does.

I have kept reading, I guess because I wanted to get to his treatment of more modern times. I've gotten as far as Panizzi, but had to get all of this out of my system before going on. On page 167, Wright quotes a biographer, one Louis Fagan, on Panizzi's appearance. I looked at the citation for the quote and found:
"3. Louis Fagan, quoted in Teresa Negrucci, 'Historiography of Antonio Panizzi,' 2001,"
I looked up the paper online, and Ms. Negrucci was a student in the UCLA library school at the time of writing this paper, done for IS 281 "Historical Methodology for Library and Information Science." (The citation above is no longer valid. You can find it linked from this page of student writings.) A perfectly fine school paper, but probably not an authoritative source. Plus, I was taught that you only took quotes from someone else if the original is terribly hard to get to. Fagan's book is available in at least 80 US libraries, according to WorldCat, although today I was able to get to it online. Now, I admit that the book may not have been available via Google Book Search when Wright was composing his work, but by no means is the original inaccessible. In fact, if he had looked at the original, rather than the student paper, he would have understood that Fagan was quoting someone else in his description of Panizzi, not making the statement himself, as Wright states.

It's not an important point nor a particularly important passage, but it is sloppy scholarship. It means he took his information from someone else and did not verify the original source. In fact, of the about 260 citations in the book (and I'm counting all of the "ibid's" in this) a full 52 are "quoted in" or "cited by," and mainly the former. The entire first half of the book, which is on ancient and medieval history, uses modern sources almost exclusively. One chapter, on memory, cites only six discrete works, and takes quotes of Thomas Aquinas, Giulio Camillo, John Willis, John Wilkins, and Francis Bacon second-hand from books published mainly in the 1990's. In that chapter, only one "ancient" quote is from an original source. One of the citations referring to Wilkins is to a BBC web site page. It's no longer available. I might be just being mean, but I can find the BBC page cited on the Wikipedia entry for John Wilkins in the Wikipedia version prior to the date of Wright's citation, although it has since been removed. I don't at all mind people using Wikipedia for its basic purpose: to give one a clue and lead one on to sources. And of course we all jump on to the nearest bit of information on the web. But when researching a well-known historical figure, it really is important to cite a good, permanent resource, and in terms of Wilkin, other resources should be available.

As for Panizzi, Wright talks about his creation of a schedule of tiered subject headings. On page 168 he has a quote from Elaine Svenonius that implies some criticism of Panizzi's work.
"Some would argue [the subject headings] were too ambitious -- that there was no need to construct elaborate Victorian edifices since jerrybuilt systems could meet the needs of most users most of the time."
The bracketed words "the subject headings" was added by Wright. In fact, Svenonius was not referring to Panizzi's headings. The quoted passage is about "systems produced during the second half of the nineteenth century," ("Victorian" should be a hint) which would be after Panizzi, whose primary work was done earlier in that century. And the full quote, with no reference to subject headings, is:
"The systems produced during the second half of the nineteenth century, a period regarded as a golden age of organizational activity, [cites Cutter 1904] were ambitious, full-featured systems designed to meet the needs of the most demanding users. Some would argue that they were too ambitious -- that there was no need to construct elaborate Victorian edifices since jerrybuilt systems could meet the needs of most users most of the time. [cites Coffman]" Svenonius, p. 3
The Cutter reference is to his 4th edition of Rules for a Dictionary Catalog. The sentence quoted by Wright is a reference to American Libraries article by Steve Coffman called "What If You Ran Your Library Like a Bookstore?".

Must I go on? I was able to check this one reference carefully because I happened to have the Svenonius book on my own bookshelf. I have no reason to believe that the rest of his text is any more accurate or faithful to the sources he cites. I suppose the one consolation is that in spite of his MLS from Simmons, Alex Wright calls himself an Information Architect, eschewing the "L" word. I wouldn't want people to think that librarians don't know how to do research.


arkham said...

As to snakes being a leading cause of death "...throughout our species history", here are some recent numbers: Deaths due to venomous snakes or lizards, per year, as of 2003: 2.

To be fair, I'm sure there were more in the past, when anti-venom was not widely available (or available at all), but - TWO? Hardly a leading cause of death.

Leo Klein said...

It's been years but I vaguely remember that 'codex' in fact referred to the format.

In other words, for the Romans, binding the leaves on one side and (I guess) enclosing it in a cover was the "codex".

It's like us saying 'word' document or 'pdf' nowadays.