So that’s where I put the South Oxford Tennis Club. And it was so much work, even beyond the research and formatting: Is my phrasing too opinionated? Do I trust a scholar’s word over a source that claims to have been there? To that point, what is my role as a non-Black person starting a record of a Black institution?
I was reminded of all this as I shook the dust off my account to edit Sichuan pepper. The effort of Wikipedia had been a headache when I had a full-time job, but now I could better appreciate how extraordinary it is that such detailed concerns should be standard on a volunteer production. Every single entry — from “99 Bottles of Beer” to “Human” — has an accompanying “Talk” page, where editors and readers dissect it.
In the past I’ve had to remind student patrons that you can’t cite Wikipedia on research papers, and if they asked why, I never had a great answer, just something along the lines of, “Um, it’s kind of lazy, don’t you think?” But now I’d advise them to visit a Talk page or two to understand what research is. It’s not just looking online for stuff; it’s a process of assessment, of re-searching through what you’ve found to determine what’s superfluous, what’s missing and what requires thought. The nakedness of this process on Talk pages makes it accessible. Professional researchers can be precious about our work, but research is a skill we can and should all acquire, given the abundance of information and misinformation mixed up at our fingertips.
Plus, it feels great. Few things are as satisfying as uncovering a hard gem of truth in the shifting sands of opinion, politics and legend. I worked my way slowly through the Sichuan pepper entry, unraveling the truth of an assertion while waiting to hear back on job applications, adding a citation while my baby slept.
As someone who’s never lived in China and doesn’t speak Mandarin, I was especially concerned with finding sources from regional experts. Sichuan pepper, like the South Oxford Tennis Club, belongs to a culture different from the one I grew up in, and quality research requires primary sources — people who know what they’re talking about because they’ve lived it. In almost every instance, uncovering truth means hearing the words of people who aren’t you.
I finished the Sichuan pepper revisions, I mean as much as research is ever finished, which is to say that people are still out there improving on my improvements. But I couldn’t stop. I haven’t stopped. Even as more profitable work has come my way, I still find time for an edit on the béchamel sauce entry, a citation on the La Llorona entry, a sleepless hour dedicated to one of the many, many other entries tagged as “Wikipedia articles with sourcing issues.” It’s something of an addiction and something of a benediction, an act of love for a world that, as messy and misleading as it can be, still contains the most beautiful truths.
Mary Mann is a librarian and the author of “Yawn: Adventures in Boredom.”
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