When I am not working on the blog or running my own business, I teach in the geography department of the University of Toronto. Among other things, I talk to my students about research skills, and I encourage them to expand their search for information well beyond Wikipedia and the basic Google search.
Most of my colleagues disparage Wikipedia as an inadequate crutch in the search for reliable, verifiable, peer-reviewed, double-blind-tested information. And so did I…until I started to create Wikipedia entries. Now, although I still recognize its many flaws and weak spots, I have a newfound respect for this resource. And I started contributing as a direct result of this blog.
It all began with Stanley Loomis. In fall 2010, I wrote a blog inspired by Stanley Loomis’s 1967 book, A Crime of Passion, about the murder of the Duchesse de Praslin by her husband in 1847 in the house shown above (the blog is one of our all-time greatest hits; it continues to attract readers). Something about Loomis’s book inspired me in a way I cannot explain. I was desperate to know more about its author. But there was nothing whatever on the Internet about him.
Fortunately, with my access to the University of Toronto library system (the most extensive academic library in Canada), I was able to find out a few things published in long out-of-print journals. And then, on an impulse that surprised even me, I contacted his family. I just had to know more about him.
I stumbled onto the story of a fascinating life, cut short far too early. Stanley Loomis was hit by a car on the Place de la Concorde in 1972 and died of his injuries just a few days before what would have been his 50th birthday. He had written four books of French history and biography, each one a polished gem of research and insight. (The other three are Du Barry, Paris in the Terror, and The Fatal Friendship. I’ve read them all, now own them all, and recommend them all. They are out of print, but you can find them in libraries and through online secondhand booksellers.)
But the more I found out, the more I wanted to know. Since my first tentative e-mail to Stanley’s son, I have talked to many of Stanley’s family members and friends, all of whom were happy to share what they knew and delighted that someone was taking an interest. What could I do with what I learned? After a while, it occurred to me: write a Wikipedia entry.
In my first Wikipedia foray, I learned that there are rules and there are people who police those rules (also “bots” who troll Wikipedia entries looking for trouble). The information must be verifiable. No plagiarism. No conflict of interest. No copyright infractions. I wrote a carefully footnoted entry that seemed to pass muster. I felt satisfied that I had ensured that a worthwhile author was now visible to Internet browsers (what the French called Internautes). Since I posted it, it has been viewed hundreds of times, probably by people like me, who have read one of his books and immediately wanted to know more about their author.
Then it turned out that Stanley’s brother, an Arctic historian, had lived an equally interesting, although very different life, and had written a landmark book of his own. The family and friends I’d interviewed thought he, too, deserved his own entry. So I created a Wikipedia article about Chauncey C. Loomis, Jr.
I am still working on Stanley’s story (this is a long-term project), and hope to compile my findings into a complete biography. He belongs to my father’s generation (my father will be 91 in April; had he lived, Stanley would have turned 90 in December 2012). Many of those who knew him are still alive, and I hope to travel to his home town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, this summer to read some of his correspondence which has been preserved by a long-time family friend.
But it didn’t stop there. Once I knew how to create a Wikipedia entry, I found some other gaps that needed to be filled. Last May, I bought a postcard in a Paris market that set me off on a little voyage of discovery. It was an image of the Grands Magasins Dufayel. And once again, I was astonished to find that there was next to no reliable information on the Internet about Georges Dufayel, who had popularized (although he did not invent) the practice of buying on credit – the foundation of modern retailing.
I was able to compile a short biography of Dufayel thanks to the Nineteenth Century French Collection at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto. The photograph on the blog that inspired me, shown above, is now a part of Wikimedia Commons. That may not mean immortality, but many people who have never seen this blog have now seen that postcard image through Wikipedia.
My interest in Georges Dufayel led me to Gustave Rives, the architect who transformed the original department store into a palace of luxury.
I kept bumping into Gustave Rives in my research. In writing a blog about a stereoscopic image that Norman had found, I learned that Rives had designed the Hotel Astoria on the Champs Elysées, which had an interesting history. Then I discovered he played a crucial role in the preservation of the films of George Méliès (if you have seen the movie Hugo, you will know what I am talking about).
Out of curiosity, I did an online search for Rives, which led me to a genealogy website on which a message had been posted by his great-great-granddaughter. She wanted to know more about her ancestor. I wrote to her and she responded and put me in touch with a local historian from a Normandy resort town developed with Dufayel’s money and Gustave Rives’s architectural talents: Sainte-Adresse.
The local historian introduced me to two hugely valuable resources: the Gallica digital library (the online resource of the Bibliothèque nationale de France) and Leonore (the online resource about members of the Legion of Honour). I’d heard that the French didn’t “get” the Internet and that French websites were lame. But these websites are models of public access to primary documents. I was able to read online copies of the Figaro dating from the mid 19th century and to see archival documents from an institution I might never otherwise have approached. If you have ever experienced the thrill of primary research, you will understand what this means.
Together, the three of us (the descendant, the local historian, and I) assembled a biography of Gustave Rives, and a list of the buildings he had designed. I created an English Wikipedia entry, then translated it into French (my French contacts edited my efforts to make them sound idiomatic). Posting a Wikipedia entry in French stretched my French language abilities to the utmost. If I thought the English Wikipedia instructions were a little opaque, the French ones were a complete mystery.
I am still trying to figure out the protocol for uploading images to Wikimedia Commons. My Sainte-Adresse contact sent me a photograph he had found in the municipal archives, taken in about 1916 by an unknown photographer, of a building designed by Gustave Rives (now demolished). The gnomes who monitor Wikipedia questioned the photograph, because the copyright is hard to determine. I assume that a photograph that is nearly 100 years old is OK, but the gnomes want proof. It’s a pain in the neck, but I appreciate the fact that they asked. It gives me more respect for Wikipedia.
OK, Wikipedia is an open-ended source of information that can be corrupted at any point by malicious or misguided intervention. Not all the entries are reliable or up to date. But it has become the way to create a record of an individual who might otherwise have disappeared from view. In creating a few entries, I have validated the memories and knowledge of people who were connected to certain prominent people who have since been overlooked. People all over the world can read about them. That is a good feeling.
This blog may disappear one day, who knows? But I hope that the Wikipedia entries I have created will endure, and will bear witness to the important contributions of people who were celebrated in their day. I like to think the entries will be there for a long time. The subjects deserve to be remembered and it is an honour keep their memory alive.
Text by Philippa Campsie