Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Snake Is Chasing Its Tail

So We Live In the World of User-Created Content, Right, With Books Fading as a Relic of the Past? NO!

Did you all see this article about Wikipedia in the New York Times: "Wikipedia to Add Layer of Editing to Some Articles" While the article mentions some of the famous Wiki gaffes — the false conspiracy stories implanted in the biography of John Seigenthaler, for examples — this is not yet another caution about using sources and careful research. Instead, we learn that the Wiki folks themselves — the great heralds of the new world in which the knowledge of the crowd replaces the wisdom of the expert — have decided that they need experienced editors to sift through some of the material they share with the public. In other words, after the great glorious thrill and excitement of creating Wiki world — which is wonderful, I use it all of the time — they have had to reinvent the wheel. We are watching evolution in action for they are reenacting the history of editing, and publishing — in short, of books.
      Editors came into being as printing began to evolve into publishing. At one time a newspaper, a general store, a post office, might also be a printer (think Ben Franklin). The place where you went to create wedding invititation was also where you could get your screed about the Rights of Man set in type and run off the press. But as the places that printed began to see themselves as a house — the House of Harper, the House of Holt, the House of Scribner — that family identity also included making some decisions — about what would sell, about what was appropriate, about style and grammar. That middle manager was the editor.
      So look at the strange place we are in today: book publishers are cutting back their editorial staff, hoping to rely on "franchise" writers whose name value is more important in the market than the virtues of any particular book (exactly the way your personal reputation in the old printed screed days got you an audience). In nonfiction, aggregators are selling school systems endless bites of knowledge — facts taken from websites (all checked and reliable) — but lacking any narrative. Again, a return to the days before there were editors, as if knowledge needed no voice, only access. And yet, at the very same time, the avatar of this new form of writing, knowledge, creation, and sharing — is, drum roll, reinventing the editor. As the title of this piece says, the snake is chasing its tail. How long will it be before we see wikipedia print books, and the cycle will be complete.


  1. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    Great phrase: “as if knowledge needed no voice, only access.” Also, at first I chuckled at the idea of wikepedia print books but then sobered up quickly. It’s just a matter of time. And who will edit those babies?

  2. Vicky:
    I am sure that if Wikipedia or another publisher expects to sell the books, they will hire a person who can deliver a book that the public wants — in other words a skilled editor.

  3. Juanita Havill says:

    I understand that the Wiki editors will be reviewing changes made to articles about people who are still alive. I wonder if volunteer editors will be recruited in the future to fact check contributions to articles about historic figures and events.

  4. The Times article does say the volunteer editors are limited to pieces about living people -_ perhaps, I suspect, because of the danger of legal action

  5. Juanita Havill says:

    I think so, too. I wonder if professional editors will eventually be hired even if paying professionals contradicts the original Wikipedia concept of a free online encyclopedia created by volunteers.