Nicholson Baker on Wikipedia
February 29, 2008 4:52 AM   Subscribe

Nicholson Baker, who in his book, Double Fold, argued for saving newspaper collections, explores "The Charms of Wikipedia" with insightful and hilarious results. He also has a new book, Human Smoke, coming out (excerpt)
posted by ed (25 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for this, I can never get enough Nicholson Baker.
posted by farishta at 5:05 AM on February 29, 2008

Great article, interesting to someone like me who's read about and brushed against most of this, but would be equally interesting to someone who had never heard about Wikipedia's internal rumblings.
posted by gimonca at 5:18 AM on February 29, 2008

  • Wikipedia sucks[citation needed]
  • Wikipedia rules[citation needed]
You can help MetaFilter by expanding on this argument stub.
posted by DU at 5:20 AM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wikipedia is Wikipedia[citation needed].
posted by ardgedee at 5:55 AM on February 29, 2008

You can help MetaFilter by expanding on this argument stub.

There are parallels between why Wikipedia works and why Metafilter (especially AskMe) works (as well as, why Wikipedia fails at times and why Metafilter fails at times). MeFites can't edit other people's work, but as on Wikipedia they can augment, amplify, refute, and quibble; and they can flag, mods can delete, and peer pressure generally makes the thing work. Basically, Wikipedia is what AskMe would be if you made everyone a mod.
posted by beagle at 6:04 AM on February 29, 2008

Wikipedia is Wikipedia[1].
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:05 AM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

That was excellent—I love Baker and Wikipedia both, and the combination is irresistible. And isn't it perfect that he specialized in saving articles from deletion? (That Narbut article has turned out quite nicely.)

But, um, what's a "stub dump"? Google has failed me!
posted by languagehat at 6:20 AM on February 29, 2008

It was like a giant community leaf-raking project in which everyone was called a groundskeeper.

Wikipedia as Tom Sawyer's fence - love it!

Nicholson Baker is wonderful. Double Fold was a really eye-opening book; I always hesitate to bring it up because it gets a lot of librarians very hot under the collar, and I think reveals a disconnect between what the public thinks librarians do and what librarians think they should be doing. It's not just about saving old newspapers, but also about digitization, book scanning/book destroying, and simple facts about the differences between the British Library and the Library of Congress (I learned from his book that the LoC doesn't save everything). He is also pretty damn scathing on the computerized card catalog. I have higher hopes for digital search in libraries these days than I did when Double Fold came out, but his criticisms were pretty serious.

I'm very excited that he's got another book coming out. He's one of my most favorite living writers. He lives not too far from me and I sometimes daydream about knocking on his door (though I know I would hate that sort of behavior, so I don't.) It would have been more fun in the days when he had the barn full of newspapers he was trying to save. Agreed that his fascination with what is about to be lost, or in danger of being lost, whether it's time, love, newspapers, books, or Wikipedia articles, has become a lifelong motif in his work.

Also, I agree on the parallels -- can we borrow this for a tagline?

MetaFilter: "the heretofore unmarshaled energies of the uncredentialed"

Or this?

MetaFilter: "a place for shy, learned people to deposit their trawls"
posted by Miko at 7:12 AM on February 29, 2008

Excellent article.

I have to say that I dont see the harm in keeping even the most prosaic (theres a better word but i havent got the time) articles, but I dont really understand how a deletipedia differs from the main wikipedia. would it have a red line across it? could you still add to it? also if it existed, would it take the sting out of the deletion arguments, since you would just be arguing which side of the fence the article sat, not a particularly important distinction really. No they need to delete things, but personally i think the burden of proof for deletion should be pretty high
posted by criticalbill at 7:15 AM on February 29, 2008

It was like a giant community leaf-raking project in which everyone was called a groundskeeper.

Quoted for Awesomeness of Slam.
posted by Nick Verstayne at 7:16 AM on February 29, 2008

It can be edited "by any passing stranger who ... saw something worth doing." It hugely popular and useful even though "it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate." [1]

Wikipedia is the larval stage of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:18 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I remember being pretty depressed after reading Double Fold-- I got the sense that the whole project started as an essay and, the more he learned about libraries and their newspaper archives, the more he couldn't fucking believe what the nefarious library admins were doing to these old newspapers. This goes on to the point where he's spending pretty serious $$ on old newspapers just because -- if he doesn't, and some other collector doesn't -- then the papers will disappear. There's also some comparisons between Library of Congress and other large nat'l libraries that seemed rather illuminating; his criticisms of the preservation technology (microfilm) stands up pretty well, too.

Baker has always struck me as an underappreciated American writer, fiction and non-fiction both. His adventures-in-criticism book about his own Updike lionizing/anxiety, U and I, is as much a keeper as Double Fold.

I wonder if any of Metafilter's resident librarians have read Double Fold and might be able to shed some light on this.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 7:25 AM on February 29, 2008

Oof, when will I learn to use the 'preview' button. What Miko said. As usual.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 7:26 AM on February 29, 2008

I wonder what he thinks of his own entry? I think it needs editing....

The newspapers were saved, by the way!
posted by Miko at 7:44 AM on February 29, 2008

O'Reilly needs to publish Metafilter: The Missing Manual. Newbies need to know why this will not wendell.
posted by lukemeister at 8:26 AM on February 29, 2008

I had the privileged of reading Baker's article in the paper copy of NYRoB without even noticing who wrote it. He made some good points

1. "notability" is the single most important decision issue on Wikipedia. As the web has made the cost of information zero, the amount of information available has skyrocketed, there is no limit. The purpose of Wikipedia is to filter what is important. As time goes on and more information comes online, this will become increasingly important and contentious as notability is often subjective. Notability is the single most used argument on Wikipedia, might as well call it Notapedia.

2. "addiction", yes indeed. Wales got it right, Wikipedia will succeed because it is addictive. It is also fun. But like all addiction it can stop becoming fun and start becoming obsessive. When it stops being fun, that's when you know it's time to move on. There are a lot of addicted obsessive un-fun people on Wikipedia. I liked how Baker said he walked away from it in the end.
posted by stbalbach at 8:26 AM on February 29, 2008

Well written. I had thought Baker was too stolid to have written something like this.

I made about 2000 edits myself and went through the same process of becoming of in the history WP:IAR and the deletionist/inclusionist/prod debates, before coming to nearly exactly the same conclusions that he did, incidentally.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:53 AM on February 29, 2008

I'm only a casual wikipedia user, but I definitely noticed an upswing in deletion-frenzy in the past while, especially with regard to images. Too often editors are demanding an image be taken down immediately, post haste, and then not making any effort to find a replacement.
posted by bonaldi at 11:48 AM on February 29, 2008

Why aren't there any tags on this post?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 12:03 PM on February 29, 2008

Nicholson Baker is so delightful. His writing shows such affection for small, seemingly-insignificant things. Like the grooves skates make in the ice, shoestrings, and bendy straws. If you like his non-fiction, try his fiction. The Mezzanine!
posted by thebellafonte at 12:58 PM on February 29, 2008

Here's a good example of the library world's response to Baker. Baker doesn't understand the cost of storing and preserving newsprint or the cumulative wear and tear from use, and he doesn't care; that's the advantage of criticizing something when it's a fait accompli--you don't have to see what happens when your hypothesis is tested.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:48 PM on February 29, 2008

Halloween Jack, have you read the book? He does understand it, and he discusses it, and gives the calculations. What he's arguing with are the underlying assumptions about what is 'worth' preserving, about whether information, in a disembodied sense, is more important than the artifact.
posted by Miko at 3:05 PM on February 29, 2008

That essay was a pretty terrible response. In fact, just about every response I've seen from a library professional has not been at all clear or well reasoned. They're all extremely defensive and they fail to address the central question of the book head-on with a simple explication of the thinking within the field. I'd really like to read something that breaks the books' topics down step by step and examines each for its truths and points out exaggerations or mischaracterizations where they appear. Baker definitely writes in the voice of the surprised and shocked layperson in the book, and that seems to be what draws fire. I'd really like to set that aside and discuss the meat of it with someone. Unfortunately, the only librarians I've brought it up to have known about the book, and have referenced other librarians' refutations of the book, but haven't read the book. It just doesn't seem there's anything factually incorrect about the book - librarians just seem to take exception to his perspective, but I think they may be so entrenched in their fields' way of thinking about books and information that they don't realize the perspective is very common.

The title itself, 'Double Fold,' is taken from a test he runs about the cumulative wear and tear. He believes this danger is overstated in most cases and backs it up with a recounting of paper technologies and which are more durable than others. He actually sits and dogears a corner of a page, backward and forward, hundreds of times, to see how long it will take to fall apart. (It holds up pretty well).

As a museum worker, I found his artifact-minded approach to books familiar.
posted by Miko at 3:14 PM on February 29, 2008

FYI, an editor has opened a deletion review of the Richard Denner article. Deletion isn't the end of the world, and since a cited article is likely possible even using the few online sources, we'll still end up with a decent article on the guy. Most people don't realize that if an article was deleted, it can just be recreated. But you need to fix the problems that caused it to be deleted.
posted by dhartung at 11:11 PM on February 29, 2008

Good article, I like Baker. Interesting how his interest in saving old library materials (papers, card catalogs & the like) dovetails with saving articles proposed for deletion on wikipedia.
posted by jcruelty at 4:28 PM on March 1, 2008

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