Deletionists, Inclusionists, and the joy of the trivial.

There is, I gather, an ongoing philosophical debate running behind the scenes of Wikipedia; one which will probably run forever. On the one side are the deletionists; on the other are the inclusionists. The question is how to deal with articles about less important subjects: one side generally favours deleting them, the other would prefer to include. The deletionists see Wikipedia as an attempt to create an online version of a traditional encyclopedia; only important subjects are worthy of an article. In the jargon, they have to be ‘notable’. The inclusionists would tend to allow articles on any subject, however obscure. They make a virtue of the fact that ‘wiki is not paper’: that there is no material constraint that prevents it growing indefinitely.

I’m on the inclusionist side. I just can’t see what harm it does if, for example, every primary school in Norfolk has its own article on Wikipedia. Or indeed every bakery or hairdresser’s in Norfolk. And I think that trivial information has its own value.

the West Sussex Dairy Company

I’m not trying to make a radically relativist case, that your local florist is just as important as Paradise Lost; of course Wikipedia should strive to have good coverage of the core encyclopedic subject matter. And I can completely see why some of the people who edit Wikipedia find it faintly embarrassing that the coverage of Doctor Who is so much more comprehensive than the coverage of Elizabethan drama (I haven’t actually checked whether that’s true; bet it is, though).

But I’d like to make the comparison with the Evanion Collection of Ephemera. Evanion was the professional name of the Victorian conjurer and ventriloquist Harry Evans. He collected trade cards, catalogues, advertisements, posters: all kinds of rubbish. It is, almost by definition, a collection of the sort of thing that deletionists at a Victorian Wikipedia would have rejected as non-notable. Now, proudly displayed on the British Library website, it is endlessly fascinating.

Steiner's Insect Powder

Or take a more recent example. If all has gone according to plan, just below this post should be a post with links to YouTube clips recorded from a Detroit TV station in the late 80s and early 90s. Some are from a dance show, with locals dressed up for a night out and dancing to Detroit techno; the others are recorded from ad breaks for the same show. They are only twenty years old, but already they have the same fascination as the Evanion material: a record of a very particular time and place through fashion, music, the adverts made by small local businesses; the ephemeral and trivial.

Wikipedia has only been running for seven years and is already an extraordinary success. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t still be going in a hundred years. There are two points I’d take from that. Firstly, taking the longer view, there is still loads of time to build up the serious encyclopedia stuff: Elizabethan drama, C16th Chinese porcelain, whatever. But also: who knows what people will find interesting, now or in twenty or a hundred years time. Just record it, let people sort it out for themselves.

ยป For more discussions about deletionism vs. inclusionism, check out this rather lovely article from the NYRB that I linked to before; or this blog post which I found via a post at Language Log. The ad for the West Suffolk Dairy Co. and E. Steiner’s Prime Dalmation Insect Powder are both from the Evanion collection at the British Library.

4 Comments

  1. 23 March 2008 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    Love the insect powder ad.

    We had a lot of old maps and state park brochures and such in the house. Things from the 40s and 50s that I didn’t really want to just chuck in the waste basket but that I didn’t have the capacity to keep in any way that might be called an archive. They were just bunged in a desk drawer.

    So one day I stuffed them all into an envelope and mailed them to the state history museum. Doggone if they didn’t send me a receipt and a thank-you letter. And I didn’t have to worry about the old things any more.

    The whole point of Wikipedia is to be able to look up an article on primary schools is Norfolk or small county seats in Central Kentucky.

    Great post.

  2. Harry
    24 March 2008 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    “Love the insect powder ad.”

    Good, innit. Apart from anything else, I find these olds ads and things fascinating as samples of typography and design.

  3. Oldfart
    24 March 2008 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    What I find fascinating is that the argument between “natural foods” and “artificial foods” and animal confinement (i.e.: the modern chicken factories) has been going on much longer than we think.

    Is it “Nothing is new under the sun.” or “The more things change the more they remain the same?”

  4. Harry
    24 March 2008 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Interesting, isn’t it. Presumably it was only with the arrival of the railways that milk could reliably be delivered from places like Suffolk to London quickly enough to keep it fresh.

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